We threw the doors open with a resounding crash.
Navid stood at the end of the room, standing in front of the throne he’d stolen from his brother. He had an ugly sneer on his face, as if he’d never been so inconvenienced as he was in this moment. After all, we’d ruined all of his plans, and he couldn’t believe we’d gotten this far.
Nokomi strode into the room, ignoring her uncle for the girl in chains upon the chair beside him. It was Nokomi’s older sister, Neema. Her fiancée, Dastan, stood behind her, his hands resting on her shoulders. It was not an affectionate pose. He was there to hold her down.
Along the sides of the room were dozens of soldiers in black armor. Some carried spears, others swords, and a few had crossbows. This was Navid’s kill room. He hadn’t thought we’d make it this far, but he’d been prepared just in case.
Dog sniffed the air, and we smelled irritation, but not fear, at least not from Navid. Neema stunk of despair. The man she’d pledged to marry her had betrayed her, put her in chains, and now served the uncle who’d killed her father. Her eyes were puffy with tears and her lip was split.
“Neema!” Nokomi shouted.
Navid’s lips curled into a smile. “Nokomi! What a pleasant reunion.”
Nokomi clenched her fist around the hilt of her knife. “You’ll pay for this!”
“Will I?” Navid suggested haughtily. “You are greatly outnumbered.”
“Maybe you don’t know how to count.” I suggested. Two or three to one was still fair odds for a force such as ours. I flashed a sharp-toothed grin and yellow-eyed stare at him.
Navid stared at me flatly, taking measure of me and finding me unworthy of notice. “Look at these beasts you travel with, niece.” He frowned in disgust. “It’s appalling. Why don’t you come down here and surrender. Then we can put your rabid pack of puppies down?”
A round of growls and barks quieted him for a moment, if only. Soldiers nervously shifted their stances and their grips on their weapons. Let them sweat, I thought, because nervous soldiers make mistakes, and we were spoiling for a fight. I could feel it in the air, the desire to draw blood. But then I heard movement in the hallways. There were more soldiers coming. He was stalling.
Navid continued once more, hand on his hip and other palm raised as he offered with feigned magnanimousness, “If you let me kill you, maybe your fate won’t be so bad as your sister’s. I can’t promise it. I might go easily on you and make sure you don’t suffer. You’ve caused me far too much pain to live.”
Hearing that, Neema surged against her chains, but Dastan pushed her back down into her seat. As I looked more closely, I realized that she’d been carefully restrained so she couldn’t draw any of her own blood. Even her manacles were padded and lined, so she couldn’t scrape herself on them. Still, she struggled, trying to scream, but a wad of cloth crammed in her mouth and tied around her face made it impossible to even bite her own tongue. What use was heartfire if you couldn’t bleed?
I turned to Mongrel, who still had the bow with him, as well as a handful arrows. “Shoot Princess Neema in the shoulder or the leg with an arrow.”
It was only a whisper, but I saw Nokomi stiffen beside me. She hated what I’d just suggested, but did not stop it from happening. She knew why I wanted her sister bleeding. It was the only way to give her sister a fighting chance.
Mongrel drew an arrow from the quiver on his back and made ready to fire, but Navid’s soldiers closed ranks and covered the front of the room with enough shields to make hitting Neema highly unlikely. I held up my hand to stay his attack. There were not enough arrows left to waste one like this.
“You cannot win, little niece!” Navid taunted. “Your mother is busy dying outside the walls, and you have chosen to die here. None will be left to oppose my rule.”
Nokomi turned to me, her eyes desperately begging for advice. “What do I do?” She whispered.
I held out my clawed hand for her to take. She took it, though I could sense her discomfort at what my hand had become to help her seek her revenge. She knew what I’d given up for her. “We don’t have a choice. We can’t stop here, no matter the cost.” How well I knew the cost…
“Neema might die.” Nokomi had already lost her father and didn’t want to have to bury a sister.
“She would rather die than be a prisoner here.” I answered softly. Dog growled in agreement, eyeing the enemies on the other side of the room.
“Enough talk!” Navid called out, disliking the quiet conversation. “Kill them all and be done with it!”
His soldiers lurched forward to fight at his command. Crossbows twanged as bolts were released to the tune of Neema’s wordless screams from beneath her muzzle.
Nokomi looked sadly at me as she fought the inevitable deaths that had been coming since her father’s betrayal. Her knife sang free of its sheathe, scoring along her forearm and releasing a spray of blood that spread before us like a shield. Her blood burst into flames, turning the crossbow bolts into cinders as they crossed through it.
“Take them apart, dogs!” I bellowed, leading the way.
Dog howled beside me and the pack surged forward like a wave. We hit the soldiers like a hammer upon an anvil. Bones and metal crunched together, and bodies went flying. Scar darted past me, his black dog flashing like inky death through enemy ranks. Dogs howled in excitement and yelped in pain. Men screamed in agony and exultation. This was true battle, all or nothing. Pack Sefr had one more fight in them.
Mongrel stayed near Nokomi, guarding her as well as my back with an arrow at the ready. He put an arrow through the visor of a soldier’s helmet and drew another of his dwindling supply of arrows. I nodded my thanks to him and then smashed my way through another enemy.
My plan to shoot Neema was still in play, but we had to clear a path. Nokomi’s blood-covered arm was outlined in fire, her flesh on fire without being burnt. If Neema’s heartfire didn’t end this, Nokomi’s would.
“Follow me!” I cried, cutting my way through the lines to where Navid waited with a sword drawn.
Dog and I made an impressive wedge, forcing men aside with hammer strikes of our fists and feet. The stink of sweat, blood, and growing fear only served to encourage our ferocity. My claws and teeth scored metal and flesh alike.
When we’d nearly reached the steps, Navid raised his hands and shot a gout of flame at us. Nokomi cried out in warning, throwing herself between us and the fire. The blast caught her across the back, spilling over her shoulder. She grimaced in pain as her cloak caught fire and her hair was singed. She threw the cloak aside, letting it burn on the floor. Then she cast a ball of fire back at her uncle, but a soldier in black armor did for the general what she’d just done for us, intercepting the attack with his own body. He collapsed in a smoldering pile of metal and blackened skin.
Navid lifted his blade then toward Neema’s face. Try as she might, she could not reach the blade with any part of her skin, not with Dastan holding her back, though he strained to do so. His handsome face looked ugly in the heat of battle, and I hated the man for what he was doing to Neema. Neema tried her hardest to draw her own blood, but she could not reach the blade. Tears and sweat dripped down her face, and her eyes bulged from her efforts.
“Neema!” Nokomi cried, throwing another blast of fire, this time at Dastan.
Navid threw his own fire at Nokomi’s, deflecting it away from both Dastan and Neema. The combined fire hit a pillar along the side of the room, sizzling at is ate into the stone.
Dastan went white, looking at the stone that might have just as easily been him. His face flashed with anger, realizing he might well have just died. He drew his hand back and slapped Neema across the face. Her head rocked against the side of the chair, and she slumped down.
“Bastard!” Nokomi growled, beginning to draw more heartfire into her hands.
“I’ll kill you for that.” Mongrel promised, trying to get a clear shot on Neema’s fiancée.
Dog and I were doing our best to keep soldiers back from Nokomi, but we were outnumbered in here, despite doing our best to even the score. Navid was helping his own soldiers by casting fire at our pack, burning both dogs and men alive. Our two forces were so closely entangled that there was no way to only hit our forces without hurting some of his own men, but he didn’t even care if he killed some of his own men, just so long as some of us died.
If we didn’t strike soon, we’d lose. All we’d done would be for nothing.
“Mongrel!” I shouted. “Hit Navid!”
Mongrel snapped off a shot with his bow, but it didn’t have the power he needed behind it, not with such a hurried effort. Navid batted the arrow aside with his sword, laughing as he effortlessly defended himself.
“You’ll have to do better than that!” Navid called down the steps at us.
I smiled. I planned on it. “Again! Left side!”
Navid scowled as Mongrel nocked another arrow and fired. The second arrow was sent astray just as the first had been, but in doing so, Navid’s steps had carried him right in front of Neema.
Dog had been watching Neema closely, and what he saw I also knew. Dog knew that Dastan’s strike had opened up a gash on Neema’s forehead where her face had struck the side of the chair. She wasn’t so stunned as she’d played to be. Instead, she’d hidden her face and waited for the blood to bead up. With her uncle right in front of her, she drew her will into that rivulet of blood and flicked it at him with a sudden jerk of her face.
Navid turned in surprise as Neema’s heartfire scored him across the back like the strike of a fiery whip. Normal fire might not hurt one of the royal family, but heartfire knew friend from foe. Navid let out a cry of pain and turned to stab her with his sword, but that was all the opening Nokomi needed. She threw all of her will into her ball of fire and threw it at his open back.
Once more, a soldier tried to get between her attack and Navid, but Dog pulled him down, ripping his legs out from under him. Nokomi’s aim was true, and the white ball of light burned like the noon sun as it hit Navid square in the back, burning its way through his spine as it burrowed into him.
Navid sagged to the floor, nerveless and dead from the waist down. His sword clattered to the floor and he cried out in agony. Blood and spit bubbled at his mouth and he clawed at the carpeted floor, gasping in pain. His mouth worked like a fish out of water, filling with wordless cries of pain. I doubted he was able to do much more than feel his nerves being seared from the inside out.
At the fall of their master, many of the soldiers backed away from us, dropped their weapons, or backed away from the fight, disengaging when they could. My allies had their blood up though, and many would not stop fighting so easily. I gave a bark, calling them off. Even then, some wanted to press the attack. I let them as they wished, though I had no desire to see any more blood today, save for one man’s.
“Mongrel?” I asked.
“Go?” He turned to me.
“Kill Dastan.” I nodded toward Neema’s traitorous fiancée.
Dastan opened his mouth to protest, but took an arrow in the back of the throat. He crumpled to the floor, dying painfully. I nodded approval to Mongrel, who nodded back.
The dogs surrounded us then, gathering in a circle to watch over Nokomi as she went up the steps and knelt beside her uncle. She crouched triumphantly over his prone form.
“You stupid, stupid man.” She shook her head. “You could have sat at the right hand of greatness, but your greed got the better of you. For what? How many people had to die for your pride?”
Navid shook his head, struggling to breath, but he managed a few words. “What would a girl… who consorts… with animals… know of pride?” He spat out.
Nokomi looked up at me, she looked at Dog, and then she looked around at those who had fought bravely to get her this far. She must have liked what she saw. “They may look like beasts, but they have more honor in them than you, a man of my own family.”
“Time to die, uncle.” She spat on her uncle then and put her knife over his chest. “Remember that traitors don’t reach the afterlife.”
“Emperors do.” Navid glared at her defiantly.
“You were never really the Emperor.” She growled, pushing her knife into her uncle’s chest, sinking it all the way to the floor. “Die, pretender!”
Then, so he couldn’t use his dying blood to kill us all, she crisscrossed her palm with a fresh cut, drawing a fistful of blood that she pressed on his forehead. Her glowing hand melted through his face like candlewax.
With Navid’s ruined body stretched out before us, Dog threw back his head and howled. I joined him. Soon, the others were howling too. Even, I noticed, Nokomi, whose eyes flashed yellow as she joined in.
Her throat produced the most marvelous howl I’d ever heard. I watched her in awe, marveling at her teeth, suddenly sharper than I remembered, and her claw-like fingertips. She was perfect. More than perfect.
It seemed the bond of heartfire and Old Blood went both ways.
Neema was very much like her sister and yet so very different at the same time.
Neema was taller than Nokomi, although it was yet to be seen if that would hold true forever. Nokomi was certainly taller now than I remembered her, but at eighteen or nineteen years of age, I did not know if she’d reached her full height yet. She likely had, but one never knew. Still, I suspected that Neema would always be at least a little taller than her sister, if slighter of build.
Truthfully, Halina and Neema looked more like sisters than Nokomi and Neema did, except in the eyes. Neema had those same warm eyes as Nokomi, brown with a hint of red, the color of melted chocolate or warm coffee with the sun shining through it.
I would not be unfairly partial to Nokomi if I said that she was prettier than Neema, since most would find Nokomi’s features more pleasing to the eyes. Neema was attractive in her own way, but she paled in comparison to her younger sister, who seemed to grow more beautiful by the day. Neema was intelligent-looking, with observant eyes and a narrow mouth that only opened after she carefully considered her words. Her face was a bit long, and she had a prominent nose, taking more after her father than her mother. Nokomi, on the other hand, had much of her mother’s look about her face, sharing her elegant bone structure and delicate features.
Neema moved with grace, making her a careful presence in any room. Her steps were as light and careful as her words, and her betrothed, Dastan, doted upon her. When his full attention was upon her, she glowed, becoming more attractive. It was strange to watch the two of them together, shining in each other’s presence.
As an official, if yet unannounced, intended husband to the princess, Dastan was allowed into the royal residence for his visits with Neema. Of course, they were still supervised, mostly. Neema was too careful to let anything untoward occur anyway, or so Halina had explained to me.
This was only my second time in the royal residence, but it was my first visit on official business. Uninvited incursions onto the princess’ balcony in the deep hours of the night were generally not considered official business. I smiled, thinking about that. Kalb probably knew of it, seeing as he knew almost everything that happened around the palace. As of yet, he’d chosen not to punish me or confront me about it.
The sitting room we were meeting in was on the ground floor of the royal residence. Generally speaking, outsiders never went above the first floor. Dog and I had already violated that rule apparently.
The room was richly and comfortably decorated. Mosaics had been painted on the walls, scenes of deserts blooming, oases, and studies of wildlife. Dog and I even found a hunting dog like him hiding in a corner of one painting. It was a small detail, but we appreciated his inclusion. We studied the layers of painting, wondered if it had always been there, or if it had been added afterward.
Dozens of potted plants, ferns and flowering shrubs mostly, had been placed around the room to make it feel more lush and peaceful. Water trickled in a fountain to one side, offering more privacy with its gentle noise. A ring of chairs and benches with woven cushions surrounded the fountain, with small round tables placed between them for refreshments.
Neema sat beside Dastan on one bench, hands close but not quite touching. She was beaming at him as he told her a simple story of his morning, something apparently humorous but otherwise commonplace. I didn’t understand the point of the tale, but the two were all looks, smiles, and teeth as he retold the events. It was foolishness, but I found myself unable to stop watching them.
Neema had her own handmaiden, Kamaria, sitting on the bench next to her. She was a somewhat homely girl with an infectious laugh, wide hips, and a prodigious bosom. She covered her mouth with her dainty hands when she laughed, which was frequently and loudly. Everyone liked her instantly, because she had a disarming manner that made her quite easy to like. Dastan’s manservant had certainly taken to her, if his eyes and heartrate were any indication.
“They are something, aren’t they?” Nokomi asked, coming up beside me.
“Kamaria and Dastan’s man?” I asked facetiously. I cracked a smile.
Nokomi frowned at me, shaking her head.
“They are at peace with each other. I envy them.” I admitted, trying hard not to look too long at the gauzy layers of fabric that surrounded Nokomi. They surrounded her like morning mist, disguising but not fully hiding her figure.
Nokomi cast a glance sideways at me, studying my face. I met her gaze. She did not look down or away, as Halina had started to do since learning my true nature. Nokomi was the only one who met my gaze, other than Kalb or the Emperor and Empress. Even many of the other boys from the Kennel, like Legs and the others, had learned to avert their eyes. It was a dominance thing, and they instinctively looked aside first so as not to challenge me. Nokomi wasn’t that way, and I loved it about her.
“It’s the little things…” I explained in a tone just above a whisper, nodding back at Neema and Dastan. “It’s the way he focuses on her mouth when she speaks or meets her eyes and they both break into a grin.”
She snorted a slight laugh. “They’re a bit too much sometimes. They definitely like each other.”
I focused on Dastan, watching him study Neema’s lips. “He’s wondering what her mouth tastes like.”
“He is not!” Nokomi protested, hiding a laugh with her hand.
I leaned over to Nokomi, speaking right next to her ear. “Watch his eyes, his body language. If we were not here, the conversation would be quite different, a lot more physical.”
Nokomi swallowed, and I smiled at the uptick in her heartrate as she studied her sister’s interaction with Dastan. We watched as Dastan’s fingertips inched over to touch Neema’s hand and Neema’s cheeks blushed slightly, only noticeable if you were looking for it.
“You may be right.” She whispered.
I braved the moment, trying to recapture what I’d felt on the balcony. I reached over and took her hand in mine. “Could we ever be like that?”
She stared at me for a long moment, searching for words. Then she looked away, eyes suddenly misty. “Probably not, Go.”
I let her hand go and nodded. Dog shifted unhappily at my side. To his credit, it was Nokomi that was the source of his displeasure. He nudged my leg with his hip, offering a reassuring presence.
“In another world or another time, maybe.” She offered a moment later, softening the blow a little, but a soft touch on the arm could not remove the sting of denial.
I took a breath and stood my ground, observing the room, as was my duty. I’d not been asked here to make advances on Nokomi.
Halina and Lila had accompanied Nokomi to this meeting, extra witnesses to the courtship. They also sat on the benches near Neema and Dastan, and I found that Halina was carefully looking everywhere but at Nokomi and I. She’d definitely seen what had just happened. Neema’s arched eyebrow also seemed to indicate that she’d noticed the exchange. She was astute if nothing else.
“We can’t talk here.” Nokomi whispered, loud enough that only I could hear. She glided away with a smile to join her sister.
Moments later, Dastan had given up his seat to Nokomi, and the two sisters were clasping hands, leaning on each other, and laughing. Dog and I stood apart from the others, never more aware of the gulf between these people and our pack. We were different and always would be. We were watching them, feeling for the first time like we would have given anything to be part of that group, but knowing we could never be.
Dog settled back on his haunches, observing. I did the same, leaning against the wall with the ease I’d learned as a soldier. Given time when little was required of you, one had to learn how to conserve energy. Why stand if you could lean, and why lean if you could sit? Sitting wasn’t exactly guarding though, so I leaned, relaxed but ready to move if needed.
That’s when Dog and I noticed it.
Servants had just arrived with another round of snacks and refreshments. Dog’s nose picked up the savory scents of meat and cheeses and sweets. We caught the scent of berries, a rare treat indeed in this season. The two servers smiled and excitedly described the delicacies they carried on their silver platters.
Dog and I shifted forward a pace, sensing something off. Only one of them wore gloves, although their uniforms were otherwise the same. The one without gloves seemed more anxious, more pleased to be serving. Neema lifted her hand to reach for one of the berries.
“They’re deliciously tart.” The ungloved man said with an obsequious smile.
Dog’s nostrils flared, sensing something foreign. My eyes widened and I threw myself forward with a snarl. With muscles inhumanly strong and reflexes that matched any animal, I hurtled over a plant and a bench, sliding toward the servant. With an animal growl, I slapped the tray aside and, in doing so, sent the servant tumbling over the bench he stood beside. The man went sprawling on the floor, dishes clattering loudly around him. Berries smeared across the floor like dark blood.
It all happened so fast. Neema’s eyes closed involuntarily, and she flinched away. Dastan tried to shield her from whatever was happening, but he was not nearly fast enough. He had one arm around her and the other out to fend me off, but there was nothing he could have done to stop the actual attacker, and less he could have done against me.
Lila and Dastan’s man both stared wide-eyed at me. The other server looked about ready to piss himself, and the dishes rattled on his tray as he trembled nervously. Kamaria’s amiable laugh had turned to a shriek of surprise, Nokomi was screaming at me to stop whatever I was doing, and Halina had drawn her knife protectively.
“Captain Goren!” Nokomi hissed, coming fully into her anger now. She stood and huffed, ready to launch into a tirade against me.
I turned to glare at her, shaking off the fire burning through my scalp as her anger made itself known acutely. Dog barked and lunged after the other server, who’d come to his feet with his own knife drawn even after being knocked down.
I let go completely then.
In mere moments, my teeth elongated under my lips, and my eyes went yellow. The skin of my fingertips parted to let claws tear out. My ears lengthened along with my face, which gave may to coarse fur along my jawline and down my neck. My muscles bulked and tightened, straining under the confines of my clothes; they were like fired steel, waiting to be given shape and direction.
Kamaria’s shrieks turned to fearful screams.
The server-turned-assassin slashed at me with his blade, a feint designed to get me to go on the defensive so he could go after Neema. That might have worked against a normal man. I was anything but normal. I brushed aside his feint and shattered his forearm with a chop of my hand. He cried out and was spun around with the force of my blow. He tried once more to reach for Neema with his good arm, but Dog intercepted him. With a broken arm and Dog’s jaws clamped around his other wrist, the assassin went down, howling in pain.
I crouched over the man, lifting him up by his shirt front. In the state I was in, he was no more heavy to me than a child. Dog let go as I lifted him, his teeth leaving deep punctures in the man’s arm that dribbled blood on the floor.
I snarled in his face, saliva splattering over his cheeks. “Who sent you?” I growled, having trouble forming the words properly with my altered mouth.
He shook his head, refusing to answer. I shook him, repeating my question. Still, he refused to answer. I held him up with my left hand and squeezed his shattered forearm with my right. I felt the broken bones shift under his skin, and he screamed, eyes widening.
At about that moment, dishes clattered to the ground behind me and I smelled fresh urine coming from the other server. Fear sweat was thick in the room, but I ignored it. Snorting a laugh, I threw the man into the corner, tossing him like a ragdoll.
“Get him, Dog.” I nodded my head toward the man and barked.
Dog set upon him as if he were a rabbit or a toy, harrying his limbs as he flailed about and tried to protect himself. Blood sprayed from a dozen wounds before I called him off, and only because I realized that Nokomi was shouting in my ear for me to stop. I’d been so focused on my task that I hadn’t even heard her, not until she took my face in her two hands and made me meet her eyes.
“Go… Stop.” She repeated again and again.
Dog fell back two paces and waited for the man to make a move, any move more than crying in the corner. I noticed that some of his blood had splattered on the murals near where the wild dog had been painted. It lent a sort of poetic accuracy to the painting to have been painted on by the same sort of animal. I laughed maniacally and turned back to Nokomi, confident that the man was no more threat. He certainly wouldn’t walk out of the room.
Only then did I notice the expressions on the others around me.
Dastan was aghast, but he clutched Neema to him protectively, shielding her eyes and face against his chest. His heart hammered in his chest, and I could smell the terror on him. Even so, he had the ability to meet my gaze. He swallowed audibly, to me at least. He had the look of a baby animal staring at its own death.
Halima wore a grim look. Her knife shook in her hand, still held before her. There was this look of surrender in her eyes. She knew she couldn’t stand against something like me, not if I wanted to do her harm, and I scared her. She was the sort that would have fought to her death, even knowing it was inevitable. There was steel in her.
Lila, Kamaria, Dastan’s man, and the other servant all looked at me as if I were a monster, something they wished would disappear from sight.
I ignored them, looking back to Nokomi once more. “This is what I am.” I whispered.
Her hands swept down my face to my shoulders, down my arms, to my hands. She took both of my clawed hands in hers and looked deeply and sadly into my yellow eyes. “I know.”
“There was poison. We could smell it.” I explained.
She nodded. “I believe you.”
“I would do anything to protect you.” I growled, looking back at the assassin with his ruined arms, scratched face, and bleeding legs.
She squeezed my hands with her much smaller ones. Mine were larger anyway, and the clawed tips of my fingers just made it more pronounced. “I know that, Go, but now you need to leave. The guards will be here to take care of our attacker. We don’t want any misunderstandings when they arrive. Halina and I can watch that man until they get here.”
“But…” I started to protest.
“I’m your princess, Captain Goren. Listen to my orders.”
I let the beast slide away then, shifting back toward my humanity. Dog still stood guard over the would-be assassin.
“Leave.” Nokomi ordered, her expression and tone offering no other course.
Dog and I left, listening to Nokomi bark orders to all still present that they were not to speak of what they’d just seen, none of it. It struck me then that Nokomi, even though she was the younger sister, had taken command of the situation. I was proud of her.
Yet, I wondered how this would play out, and I retreated to my residence, where I waited for my next audience with Emperor Baraz and Minister Kalb. I knew would not have to wait long, not after what had just happened.
National Novel Writing Month 2019: The Emperor's Dogs