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.
We cut our way through the defenses that tried to hold us back from reaching the palace walls. The front gates were the obvious route of attack, since the Emperor had destroyed them when he died, but we knew they would be heavily defended. We went that way anyway, perhaps because it was so obvious, but also because Nokomi had a need to return through the same gates where her father had died.
The estates along the avenue leading to the gate were shells at best, crumbled pieces of foundation that had bene mostly blown apart in the explosion. The pit in the middle of the road, the epicenter of the explosion, was fused like volcano glass. The heat must have been truly incredible.
Unlike her father’s entourage, we were not so easily taken by surprise. Nasha’s scouting revealed the fighters waiting to ambush us, and we took them by surprise instead. We were merciless, but not without sense. We were not a pack of ravening beasts. The Princess’ Dogs were a weapon, surgical and precise in our violence.
Nokomi paused only briefly at the exact spot where her father had loosed all of his heartfire in one last deadly blast. She looked to me, and I nodded encouragement to her. She took a breath and fixed her eyes on the makeshift gates that had been erected in the weeks since we’d fled the palace.
Heavy timbers had been placed where the gates had been blown apart. While they had not been mudded into place or finished with the tiled roofing to match the rest of the walls, they were sturdy. They may have lacked ornamentation, but they would hold against an army without a battering ram or the ability to leap to the top of the walls.
Still, that would be a costly battle, costing as much in time as in lives. Time was a luxury we did not have. We had to get to Navid quickly, before he could flee. I’d already left a small contingent in the home that Kalb had used to hide Nasha’s existence, on the off chance that Navid tried to slip out the same way we had, though I doubted he would be that obvious.
“It’s time.” I suggested and Dog echoed, our voices still strange in our pointed ears.
Nokomi had been carrying fire in her palm, but had not yet had an occasion to use it. We’d kept her guarded well enough that she’d not had to join the fighting, so she might save her heartfire for situations like this. Our pack could certainly take the walls and bypass the gates, but we might have need of the soldiers we’d lose here.
“My turn.” Nokomi agreed.
She stepped forward to face the gate, keeping just out of range of arrows. Dog and I stood beside her just in case. We would not let a random arrow end our vengeance, not with our goal so near.
Nokomi concentrated her energy and will into the ball of fire that danced on her fingertips, and we watched it grow to burn so brightly that we had to turn our eyes away for fear of going blind. When she’d gathered all the light she needed into the sphere, she wound up and cast it at the gates. That ball of light flew straight and true, flying farther than I would have thought possible to throw such a thing. The globe arced through the air, striking dead center in the middle of the gates.
It hit, splashing like a tomato, and the liquid fire immediately started burning wherever the droplets landed. Even the sand at the base of the gates caught fire. Her blood as good a fuel as any oil, and in moments the entire new gate was on fire. More than that, the fire seemed alive, and it burrowed through the wood where it had struck, sizzling and melting the wood as if it were sugar in hot tea.
Screams erupted from behind the walls, where some must have been too near the fire when it burned through. The fire grew, taking on a life of its own until it had engulfed the entire gate complex. Even from our distance, we could feel the warmth of the fire on our faces.
We had but to wait. And howl.
The pack’s howled for Navid’s blood, growing louder as the fire grew stronger, reaching a crescendo as the gate finally collapsed in on itself, sending up a shower of sparks that danced like fireflies in the rapidly-approaching night.
Nokomi strode toward the fallen gates and parted the sparks with a spreading motion of her hands. I watched in surprise as the fire, even the small pieces of it in the air, obeyed her. It was, after all, a part of her.
Soldiers had arranged themselves in a half ring within the walls, far enough from the fire to not get burned, but close enough to encircle any attackers that dared to enter through the destroyed gates. We heard crossbows being cranked and bowstrings going taut.
“The two open pavilions facing us are loaded with archers and bowmen.” Nasha reported, her eyes out of focus as she saw through Zephyr’s eyes. She looked fiercer than I’d ever seen, with the hot winds from the fire blowing back through her dark hair and her mouth turned upward in a satisfied smile.
“Do we have an archer?” Nokomi asked, looking around at the lot of us.
I looked to Scar, and he quickly located arrows and a bow that had belonged to a waiting assassin that would never pull another bowstring. Among us, Mongrel was the best archer, so he drew an arrow and stood at the ready, awaiting Nokomi’s command.
“See if you can hit each of those towers.” She suggested, reaching out to ignite the arrowhead with the blood on her palm.
She held the arrow until the arrowhead glowed white and the wood it touched sizzled. If there had been an moisture left within the shaft of the arrow, it had just vaporized.
“Don’t let Adish see you doing that.” I remarked.
She grinned at me, her eyes more alive in the light of her heartfire than I’d ever seen them. “How do you think we reforged my father’s sword?”
I blinked at her in surprise. She wasn’t kidding about using her blood in the forge. That gave even more meaning to the blade she carried. She’d spilt her own blood to make it.
Mongrel drew back the bow and loosed the heartfire arrow. It sailed through the sky like a shooting star, piercing the roof of the western pavilion. While Nokomi lit the second arrow, the first one burst into flames on the roof. Under that extreme heat, even the stone roof burned. Hot melted stone rooftiles dripped down onto the archers below as the structure began to go up in earnest. I remembered standing on that pavilion as Navid had made his triumphant return and going down the stairs to meet Legs. Now, it was burning.
The second arrow hit lower, on the observation levels of the eastern pavilion tower. Men tried to splash water on the fire or stamp it out, but this was no ordinary fire, and it blazed far too hot for simple things to put out. This was living fire – it sought destruction and found it.
With the archers disabled and the company of soldiers waiting for our attack thrown into disarray from the sparks floating down at them, our pack surged through the embers of the ruined gate. With powerful strides and leaps to carry us to the enemy, we were on top of them or behind them in mere moments.
The living fire knew who its friends were, curiously floating harmlessly past dog and man alike, while stinging enemy soldiers. It wasn’t even a fair fight. It was butchery.
When we’d cleared the space between the walls and the palace, we continued forward, picking up the pace as we neared our goal. Dogs and boys turned less than human by their changes were leaping over the smaller set of walls that blocked off the courtyard. I took Nokomi in my arms and jumped over the wall, following Dog’s lead.
More soldiers came pouring into those long gardens, the same courtyard where I’d been reunited with Nokomi upon returning to the city. It was a strange homecoming, this time with fire and death instead of joy. But the death brought a different, thrilling sort of joy to Dog and I: the thrill of the hunt. We were hunting down our enemies, our rivals.
Dogs and men launched themselves at the soldiers that burst from between the pillars of the palace. These were Navid’s heavy guards, the best-trained soldiers in his army. They looked like beetles in their dark armor, but it they thought to stop us here, after all we’d gone through to get this far, they didn’t know us.
Dog and I fell upon them like scythes through fields of ripe grains. We reveled in the terror that filled our nostrils. The blood of seasoned soldiers fell thick before our claws, and their flesh parted almost happily beneath our teeth. No sword, steel, armor, or weapon could halt our advance, but there were many soldiers. Our advance was not without cost.
A determined knot of defenders slowly gave ground as we broke into the halls of the palace itself, leaving behind the night air. The cool night was battling with the heat of Nokomi’s fire and losing, just as surely as Navid’s defenders were failing.
I roared and threw myself into the knot of defenders. My landing killed one, whose spine snapped beneath my sudden weight. Dog crashed beside me, and we tore at the soft innards of men from within their own ranks. We found their vital organs, even through their boiled leather and ring mail armor.
I punched one so hard that his helmet folded over on his skull, crushing his head like a ripened melon. Dog’s claws cut through men like scissors, and his maw found openings in armor and shields that ended lives. The two of us stood in a pile of gore, the center of calm in a sea of controlled chaos.
An archer down the hallway tried to put an arrow in my chest, but we batted it aside. When we barked at him, he fled, and the path was clear to the audience room.
Dog and I shook, and blood sheeted off of us as if we’d just taken a bath. Nokomi came to stand beside us, jaw clenched as she tried to ignore the carnage. These men were doing their duty, but so were we.
Nokomi’s hand gleamed as if she wore a glove of fire, and her eyes had a hard set about them. “We’re almost there. Let us finish this.”
I led our company onward until we reached the audience chamber. The last time I’d been here, Emperor Baraz and Kalb had been alive. I halted outside, giving a sniff. I could smell Navid beyond those enameled double doors.
“He’s in there.” I announced, earning a round of growls and snarls from my companions.
“Open it.” Nokomi ordered, drawing herself up in readiness for the fight to come.
I reached out to open the doors. This time there would be no doorman announcing our arrival. This time, fire and death heralded our presence. Navid would have to answer for his crimes.
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.
Nasha and her falcon continued to study us as we approached. She seemed to sense our intent, for she turned and started up the hillside to get some privacy while we spoke. Atop the hill, she turned back toward me once more, giving me another of those looks like I was a meal about to be enjoyed.
Her expressions were quite similar to those of her falcon, which turned its head so it could watch us with one of its eyes. Looking more closely at her, I saw that she resembled her bonded animal quite closely, especially in the eyes. Even her features were sharp, with an aquiline nose that was a bit too strong for her face.
She looked me over as I had her, and I wondered how much Dog and I resembled each other in her eyes. Did we have many of the same mannerisms? Dog and I looked at one another, and his tongue lolled out. I certainly didn’t do that.
“Can you tell me of your father?” I asked her when we had finished taking a measure of each other.
“My father often spoke to me of you.”
“He did? I am sorry that he never mentioned you.” I regretted saying it, but dogs have an abrupt and honest manner about things.
She shook her head, unoffended by my remark. “He wanted to keep me a secret. Only the Empress knew of my existence, but she only knew that he had a daughter. He never told her about my abilities. He feared that if the Emperor knew of my abilities, he’d call me into his service. After serving for as long as he did, my father had no need for money, and only wished for me to be free.”
“I am sorry that I could not save him. I was there that day. He fell protecting the Emperor, but I had to save the others in the royal family. It was my duty.”
She blinked slowly and deliberately. “I know. He told me when he gave me the sword.”
I wasn’t even sure how to respond to that. Dog settled in at my feet, sitting on his haunches and staring at the falcon. The bird cocked his head to regard Dog.
I watched the bird for a moment, then decided to risk a question that might have been rude. “Is it strange having a bird, rather than a dog?”
“Is it strange having a dog rather than a bird?” She countered, smiling slightly. “If anything, Zephyr’s maleness is stranger to me than the fact that he is a bird.”
It must be very interesting. A bird’s thoughts and views of the world must be vastly different from ours. “I’ve heard of others of the Old Blood being bonded with a horse or a fox, but never a bird.”
“Birds are not dogs. Father found it hard to relate to me.” She admitted.
“He was not a man that many felt close to, except perhaps the Emperor.” I offered.
“The Emperor knew him better than any of us.” She agreed, but she did not seem sad about it. She must have come to terms with it some time ago.
“But your father’s death? How did he pass in the end? I would have thought that the explosion would have killed him. How is it that he was able to survive to give you the weapon?”
“Teeth sheltered my father with his heavy body, shielding him from most of the blast.” Nasha turned away, so I could not see the complex emotions that crossed her face. She took a deep breath before continuing with a shaky voice, “Before he died, Teeth let his spirit go, entering my father. He was badly wounded, but for a brief moment, they were two creatures in one body, and that was enough for him to escape.”
I stared at her in surprise. Dog barked, as if he, too, could not believe what he was hearing. “He could do that? That’s possible?”
She shook her head. “Not really, not for long. It was a desperate thing, a last breath of life to pass his final words on to me. Teeth’s body was burnt beyond recognition, but even that massive dog hadn’t been able to cover him completely. My father was burned badly, barely alive.”
I shook my head, disliking this story. It was worse than I’d expected. Burns were bad, and losing your dog was even worse. Teeth’s noble sacrifice brought a lump to my throat.
When I said nothing, she continued. “That home that you saw when you escaped the palace through the tunnels was mine. Father fled there, taking what was left of the Emperor’s sword with him. He told me to find you, to help you and the Princess, to serve you two as he had served the Emperor in his life. My father died in my arms, burnt and completely spent for this kingdom. Even his last words were in service to the Emperor and his family.”
She bowed her head then, finally done. Her shoulders bowed under the weight of a lifetime of prospective service. I would’ve reached out to her, to offer her comfort, but I sensed that this was something she did not need, not from me. She was not Nokomi, and I didn’t know how to relieve her burden, except to tell her what I knew.
“The Princess would never hold you to that. You needn’t give your entire life for this. She would not take something not freely given.”
“I must.” She said. “This is my father’s dying wish.”
“Damn his wishes!” I shouted, startling her and her bird. “He can’t tell you what to do from beyond the grave any more than he can tell me what to do now.”
“I can’t…” She hesitated.
“You can.” I insisted. “Your only duty is to your pack.”
She shook her head. “I’m not a dog, Go. I don’t have a pack like you.”
I shrugged. It didn’t matter what she called it, she had one, even if she didn’t know it yet. “Then call it your flock, your family, or whatever you want. You must seek out those who complete you, and you must fight for them. Let no one else turn you away from that.”
“And the princess, is she part of your pack?” Nasha studied me carefully.
“Nokomi?” I smiled. “She is my pack, along with Dog. They are all that matter. I may love and help some of these others, but there are none I put before them.”
Dog barked in agreement. She smiled down at him.
“A pack… a flock of my own. I would like that.”
“Seek them out.” I suggested.
She looked at me, a resolute, confident look in her eyes. I realized in that moment that she was actually younger than she looked. Beyond that, she had likely not seen much of the world beyond that small estate that Kalb had left for her. She had been sheltered and left in a peaceful hideout from the world, a place where concerns could not touch her – until now.
“I believe I shall.” She announced. “But first, I would like to honor my father’s wish and see Princess Nokomi safely back home.”
“Nokomi will gladly accept your help. I’m sure of it. Zephyr might prove a valuable asset. And when it’s all done, you must look for those who offer you a complete life, the other parts of your pack.”
“Flock.” She corrected, smiling.
I didn’t argue that. Instead, we took in the breeze and the view around us in silence, absorbing details in ways that only our kind could appreciate.
As it turned out, the existence of Kalb’s daughter was a mystery to all of us, save for the Empress, but even she hadn’t known that Nasha was one of the Old Blood. With Kalb’s considerable abilities, it shouldn’t have been a complete surprise, but I’d never heard of someone of the Old Blood with a bond to a bird. I had a thousand questions, but many were likely not polite to ask, especially in mixed company, just as she would not likely question what I felt with Dog or how our connection went.
After her arrival, I hurriedly introduced Nasha to Tiny, who was livid that his defenses had been circumvented so easily. He predictably demanded to know her secrets, which she explained off as an advantage of having a falcon’s eyesight and ability to scout from the air. As was understandable, his men hadn’t expected a bird to be part of an incursion into their territory. I don’t know how complete her account was, but it was entirely possible that she had other abilities she kept to herself.
With Tiny somewhat mollified, we left Nasha with Tiny for further details, while Nokomi and I went to show the hunk of melted metal to Adish and Barid, so we could see what could be done with it. We found them at the rebuilt forge, discussing techniques with the local smith, whose talents were modest at best from the looks of it. Yet the man was willing to learn, which was a good sign. Barid had already showed the man how to use cheaper metals with lower melting points to mend and weld broken tools and pots back together as a cheaper and easier fix. A place such as this required every bit of use they could get out of things that were not easily replaced, which was just about everything.
Nokomi and I stepped up to the shaded area around the forge, where a canopy had been strung between three trees, keeping the direct sunlight off of the metalworkers. It was hot enough without having the sun beating down on you also. Adish stepped forward to greet us with a smile, leaving Barid to offer more advice to the young man working over the anvil with tongs and a hammer.
“Princess,” Adish bowed, “and Go, what can I do for you? You look like people about a purpose today.”
“What do you make of this, Master Adish? Can it be saved?” Nokomi handed him the remains of her father’s sword.
Adish turned the twisted, melted mass over in his hands, looking grave. Truthfully, much of the blade had warped and melted, the hilt’s crossguards were fused into the lump of the hilt, the leather hilt wrappings completely burned away, and any decorations melted beyond recognition. Had we not been told what it was, I doubt any of us would have known its true origins.
“There is little here left to save.” Adish declared after examining it thoroughly. “What type of sword was it?”
“It was my father’s. He had it with him when he died.” Nokomi replied.
Adish started to stammer a reply, but closed his mouth. He bowed again. “I’m sorry, Princess.”
She nodded, clenching her jaw. “Thank you.”
Adish passing the weapon to Barid, who was curious about the lump of metal. Upon looking at it, he assumed a similarly grim expression. “This is a tortured piece of metal. It must have been exposed to extreme heat. Nothing short of a complete reworking will do.” Barid offered it back to Nokomi.
“Can you not rework the blade and save some part of the hilt?” Nokomi asked hopefully. “I would prefer to have something of my father’s old weapon in my hands when I use it to put an end to my uncle.” She said simply, meeting Barid’s eyes as she said it, as if it were nothing out of the ordinary to ask him to make a tool for killing a family member with.
Barid looked from the princess to me, uncomfortable with the idea of murder. I offered him no reassurance. She was being honest about her intent. There was no hiding what she planned to do with it.
“Can you do it?” I asked.
Adish sucked at his cheek and thought for a moment. “The hilt could be filed down and reworked. It will take some work to get the full tang of the blade into what’s left. The blade is worthless, except to melt down and recast. We certainly can’t fold the metal with the equipment we have here. It will be nothing near the same quality as it was.”
“All of that reworking will reduce the amount of usable metal.” Barid commented. “Anything made from what we have here would be much smaller. Considering what we have available to work with, I’d guess we might be able to make a long knife at best, and, as Adish said, it will be nothing near the quality your father’s blade would have been.”
Adish nodded in agreement at that prognosis. “It is melted slag, to be honest. It would be faster to melt it down and start afresh, but I understand your sentimental attachment to your father’s weapon. I truly wish we could offer more.”
Nokomi nodded. She was clearly not happy about it, but at least it was not a complete loss. She thought for a moment. Then she produced a medallion from within her dress. I helped her unhook the chain and lift it free of her shoulders.
She held it out to the two smiths. We all took a look at what she held, a flame worked in gold with rubies and polished jet set around it. “Can you work this into the pommel? It is from my father, and I want as much of him in the knife as possible.”
Barid took the medallion gently with his two hands. “The chain as well? We can wrap it around the hilt like wire.”
“Please.” Nokomi said softly. It was clear that she was hesitant to part with the keepsake, but she would still have it in the blade.
“We will need time, several days at least.” Barid said, looking to Adish, who nodded in agreement.
“I’m going to need Jahan to make a lot more charcoal.” Adish observed.
“Please let me know when it is done, master smiths.” Nokomi curtsied and left the small forge.
Dog and I fell in beside her, noticing Nasha watching us from across the camp. Her yellow eyes were startlingly when she fixed you in her gaze, piercing even. My step faltered, and Nokomi followed my gaze to where Nasha stood. I stared back, caught in her gaze. Was this one of her powers?
“Go talk to her if you find her so interesting.” Nokomi suggested bitterly. “You two probably have a lot in common.”
I frowned at her, Dog whining beside me. He didn’t like hearing that either. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“She’s beautiful, strong, intense, and she has the Old Blood in her. You were both raised by Kalb…” Nokomi sighed and crossed her arms in front of her.
She shrugged and looked away, refusing to meet my eyes, because I might see the tears forming in the corners of her eyes or feel the trickle of one already running down her cheek. I felt it anyway through our bond.
“Just go.” She said softly.
This wasn’t entirely about Nasha, I realized. It was about her father’s sword, the medallion, her uncle, and everything. I couldn’t walk away. “No.”
She turned to me, giving me an imperious look. “I order you.”
I stared right back at her and shook my head. “No.” Dog whined again, agreeing with me.
She huffed and started to stalk off in the direction of the tent she’d been sharing with her mother and Halina. I caught her by the elbow and turned her back to face me.
“I will go talk to her, Nokomi, but only because I need to learn more about Kalb. I want to know about how he died, because I wasn’t there when he died, and I regret that, even if I needed to save you.”
Her eyes narrowed angrily. “Then you blame me for not being there?”
“Of course not…” She was being ridiculous. “You are my pack, and I will always fight to save you before I try to help someone else. You are more important than anyone else.”
“Except for Dog?” She asked.
“That goes without saying.” I said with a smile.
She pouted a frown, but did not argue that point. She looked over at Nasha, who still watched us with her eerie eyes. “It might be a fair match, you two.”
“Bijan might be a fair match for you, Princess. He’s handsome, well-mannered, and rich. Do you intend to marry him when we return to the palace?” I asked. I meant it somewhat as a joke, but I felt a cold grasp of fear on my heart as I waited for her to answer.
“Bijan is the last thing on my mind right now.” She said quickly. Then she shot me a look. “Nasha is pretty, though. She’s tall and very graceful-looking.”
I wasn’t going to take that bait. Not a chance. “If you like that sort of a thing, but she is not the sort of woman that I am interested in.”
Now Barid and Jahan, they might have another opinion in the matter, especially since the princess was a bit unapproachable, unattainable. I’d never had that feeling with Nokomi. She’d belonged to me as much as I’d belonged to her since the day we’d met.
“If she is not to your liking, what is it you’re looking for then?” Nokomi asked innocently, the beginnings of a smirk on her face.
“About chin height.” I held up my hand to indicate her exact height. “Dark haired. Irresistible eyes. Dangerous, more so when she doesn’t get her way.”
She broke into a grin at that description. “That could be ay of a thousand girls across the kingdom.”
“Oh, but I like a specific one with a scar on her hand and fire in her veins.” I replied, reaching for her hands.
“Getting a little more specific.” She whispered, taking both of my hands.
“I like what’s right before me. I’m not looking for anything or anyone else. You’re my ‘all or nothing.’”
“What’s that?” She quirked an eyebrow at me.
“Our pack, back at the Kennel. We had this thing we said as Pack Sefr when we all joined together: ‘All or nothing.’ It meant that we were all in it together and completely, or we meant nothing.” I felt foolish explaining it, but it felt right.
She nodded, and a slight smile came to her face. She tugged on my hands, pulling me over to her. “If that is the way of the pack, I can live with that.”
“So what will it be then? All or nothing?”
She made me wait before answering, enjoying every painful moment I waited. “I’ll take it all.”
I put my arms around her and kissed her deeply. When we parted, I felt a calmness in our bond, contentedness that hadn’t been there a few minutes ago. She slowly pulled herself away from me and took a step toward her tent.
“Go talk to Kalb’s daughter. I’ll be here when you’re doing talking.” She walked off through the sand, glancing back at me once before she pulled aside the flap to her tent and vanished inside.
I stared at the tent for a long moment, before realizing that Nasha was still watching me, observing. For that matter, Barid and Adish had been as well, though they both made a show of being very busy when I looked their way. Snorting a laugh, Dog and I went to go speak to Nasha.
Tiny’s humble home turned out to be a tent city contained within a small depression that surrounded the entrance to a shallow cave that served as Tiny’s treasury and home. Dozens of tents in a rainbow of colors, mostly faded from the harsh sun, were gathered on either side of a narrow path that led right up to the cave.
Tallow candles on stolen candelabras lit the cave, which was deep enough to shelter everyone in case of a sandstorm, if not the animals. Within the cave were disorderly piles of supplies and random treasures in a mismatch of crates, barrels, and bags. Most of the collection was mundane, but a few items were actually quite extravagant. Tiny and his settlement lived a life of relative comfort with what they’d found, captured, and scavenged.
He’d explained many of these riches initially as plunder from his raids, but we’d since come to understand his business model, which was to work as an escort for merchants who couldn’t afford their own troops of guards as they crossed the deserts on the trade roads to neighboring cities and kingdoms. They also preyed upon the bandits that plied the roads, attacking only those who attacked and stole from the innocent.
Tiny’s code of honor as the Lord of the Vultures had earned him a pass from the Emperor. They’d actually met once or twice, to my surprise. He had full license to continue what he was doing, proven by a writ issued by the Emperor himself, which Tiny kept carefully stored in a scroll case at the back of his cave.
There were several other such encampments within a few days’ journey of the capitol, we’d learned. All told, he could call several hundred scavengers and warriors to his side, which was not a large army, but it was a force to be reckoned with if used properly. Securing the rest of the army we needed to retake the palace would likely fall on me.
Our entourage had fallen into an easy routine since arriving. The Empress took at least one meal every day with Lord Zamir, as she insisted upon calling him, so they could get a further measure of each other and hash out the details of recompense for his assistance in the days to come. Nokomi and Halina joined them more often than not. Together, they dictated notes, which were tied to the ankles of the desert birds that Tiny used to keep in touch with the other camps.
Sherine had quickly become something of a camp mother. Having raised three children on her own, as well as having been something of a foster mother to less-fortunate neighborhood children such as I had been, she’d quickly set about mending garments, making poultices for scrapes, and doing any number of other motherly kindnesses. Her youngest two stayed at her side, when they weren’t playing with the dozen or so camp children. There were few women in the camp, and this was not a place designed for raising children, and the other mothers greatly appreciated Sherine’s efforts. Even the women from the palace pitched in where they could, proving that they were not too good for any sort of menial labor given them.
Adish and Barid had found a simple forge in the camp. Working together, they’d gathered and stacked rocks to improve the furnace structure, and then they’d improved the bellows with what materials they’d found. Then they’d set Jahan to gathering wood for making charcoal, as much as they could make. It burned hotter than the dried discs of camel dung they frequently used for fuel. Apparently, there was no need to worry about anyone seeing smoke this far out from the city. Even if someone did see it, they were not likely to investigate, and Tiny’s army of followers was quite capable of dissuading anything short of a large army from approaching too near their camp.
When we were not catching up with Tiny or attending strategic planning meetings, Dog and I spent our hours patrolling. Tiny and I had little enough to say to each other. Unlike the pleasant reminiscing I’d done with Legs weeks back, Tiny had few memories of his days at the Kennel worth remembering, and I was a reminder of everything wrong that had happened to him there. We gave each other space, though we were polite and friendly when we were together around others.
Patrolling was our duty, or so Dog and I told ourselves, but the truth was things were changing for us. After being away from the city for even a few days, it quickly became apparent that we were meant to be around less people. We might have fit in well enough in the army or in the Emperor’s service, but that was not how we wanted to live. Whether there were a few of Tiny’s scouts with us or not, it was far more peaceful in the desert than in the noisy encampment, although we could not help but wish to have Nokomi beside us.
She must have felt the pull to be together also, for she managed to sneak away from her duties to her family within the camp at least once a day. Drawing on our bond, she was easily able to find us, no matter where we were sitting and staring at the desert.
Nokomi seemed to sense our dislike of the crowds, but she didn’t understand the reasons behind it. “You are spending a lot of time alone, staring out at these changeless lands.”
She sat with Dog between us. Our hands reached over Dog, resting on his back, so we could feel each other’s hand and the reassurance that simple touch gave.
“These lands always change, but the changes are subtle. The way the dunes and hills look today will not be the same tomorrow.” I replied as my fingertips explored the lines of her fingers.
“No matter how the hills change shape, they are still just piles of sand.” She replied.
I laughed at that. She was right, even if she missed the point. “It’s still different.”
“And what of us?”
I looked over at her, squinting to avoid the sun over her shoulder. “What of us?”
“What changes are there in store for us? How are we different from day to day?”
“I live and die for you, Nokomi, the same as ever. If I can regain your home for you and the throne for your brother, then that is well. I just want to be beside you.”
She studied my face for a long moment, trying to hear what was implied but not said. “But you would rather we didn’t go back?”
“You and Neema are both behind Shapur in the line for the throne, despite his age. You have the least claim on the throne, so you have the least reason to return. Yet you belong with your family, and I can’t fault you for going with them.” I said softly.
“And you? Where do you belong?” She asked.
I didn’t even need to think before answering. “With you. Always with you, Nokomi.”
Her hand tightened on mine at my answer. “Where could we go, if we left right now?”
I shook my head. “I own nothing. We would live as fugitives in your own kingdom, as paupers in a neighboring land, or as the Lord of Vultures does, a brigand and sell-sword in the desert. Those are no life for you.”
“Do you understand why I have to go back, Go? And don’t tell me that it is for my position in line for the crown or because my family is going back.”
“You’re going back for revenge.” I answered. Dog looked up at us, whining.
She moved her hand away from mine to offer Dog a comforting scratch between the ears. “You killed the boy who murdered Tiny’s dog, right?”
“Drum. Yes, I ripped his throat out with my own bare hands… my claws. Your father watched and approved.”
“But you put him down for your own reasons, and you would have whether my father allowed it or not.”
“Yes.” I admitted.
“Then you know what I must do to my uncle. It is not for my brother, my mother, or even my sister to do. It is for me. I know I was not supposed to know that father loved me most, but I felt it. That is why it is for me to finish this. I will feel his throat under my own hands.” Her angry eyes were blazing, though they glittered with unshed tears.
“And I will be there to help you get to his throat, Nokomi.” I promised her. “Only, I don’t know where we go after that, the two of us.”
“Let us worry about after when we have reached it, Go. Have you not tried to show me before how dogs live in the present? How they worry about what they can do in the moment, not what is coming on the morrow?”
I nodded, smiling to hear my words given back to me. “And what can we do in the moment?”
She leaned over Dog, who grunted at suddenly being used as a cushion for her elbow. “You can come over here.” She whispered, closing her eyes.
I smiled and put my hand against her cheek, guiding her lips to mine. Dog squirmed to get out from under us, but we ignored him, even when he slipped free of us and stood at attention, looking back in the direction of the camp.
After a sharp bark, I reluctantly pulled away from Nokomi, whose face was so close to mine that I just wanted to stare at it forever, memorizing every last detail, every last eyelash, and every line of her soft lips. Dog wasn’t in the mood to let us be, not with someone approaching. I could hear the soft footfalls on the sand, and I expected it was Jahan, Barid, or even Halina, except that this one smelled different.
I turned and saw a young woman standing several paces away. Curiously, she had a bird resting on her shoulder. She was of an age with Nokomi and I, perhaps a year or two older at most. Her hair fell dark down to her shoulders, her full lips were pursed, and her sharp eyes flashed yellow. In front of her, she carried a twisted piece of metal that I almost recognized.
“Captain Goren? Princess Nokomi?” The girl asked, her voice lilting and high.
“Yes?” Nokomi and I echoed each other, staring at the girl.
The girl quickly dropped to one knee, and the bird on her shoulder flapped its wings and dug into the shoulder pad sewn onto her tunic. While kneeling, she held out two gloved hands and offered up the piece of twisted metal she’d brought with her. “I present you the sword of Emperor Baraz.”
Nokomi stood with surprising speed, hurrying to the girl. She dropped to her knees and reached to receive the ruined weapon. The girl almost lifted her eyes then, but kept her gaze down, even as she was relieved of her burden.
“Who are you?” I asked, but one look at her eyes and I knew. “Those eyes. You are Kalb’s… daughter?”
Nokomi turned to stare at me in surprise. “Kalb has a daughter?”
But once said, the resemblance was impossible to ignore. The girl came to stand once more, dusting off her knee. “He was my father, yes. His dying wish was for me to deliver this sword to Princess Nokomi and then assist Captain Goren in helping the princess achieve her revenge.”
“I will kill my uncle with this very weapon.” Nokomi declared, turning the twisted hunk of metal over in her hands.
“Well, maybe not that exact weapon, but it so happens that Adish is an accomplished smith.” I commented. You couldn’t even cut meat with what was left of the blade. It was a twisted lump of steel.
Dog gave a short bark, and the falcon’s head swiveled his direction. It readjusted its grip on the girl’s shoulder, walking in place and opening its mouth as if to cry out. Dog couldn’t take his eyes off the bird, but made no move to bother it. Something in the falcon’s expression suggested that it would be foolish to attempt anything.
“Then you will accept my service, Princess?” The girl asked. Like the bird, she had a defiant and powerful gaze, as if begging the princess to deny her, just so she could do what she wanted anyway.
Nokomi regarded her, probably wondering why this girl was pledging to her instead of her mother, the Empress. “If I am to accept your service, then I will need a name to call you by, daughter of Kalb…”
“Nasha. My father named my Nasha.” The girl replied, and like that, Nokomi had found herself another soldier in her war against her uncle.
The better question was how she’d found us and how she’d managed to evade Tiny’s soldiers. Apparently, Tiny was thinking the same thing, if the yelling from down in the tent city was any indication.
I heard them before I saw them, the subtle shuffle of skin and cloth against sand. Dog’s hackles rose, and I signaled for the caravan to halt from my lead position.
I let my eyes go along with my nose and ears, taking a share of Dog’s senses. Then I turned slowly, looking for any slight movements that would betray their positions. My left ear perked and I narrowed my eyes on a spot beside a scraggly tree, where cloth had been cleverly covered with sand, hiding the watcher beneath it.
Dog and I sprang toward the shelter, seizing the fabric and ripping it aside. Dust and sand kicked up as I shook the cloth, and a surprised soldier in dun-colored clothing was revealed. He grabbed for his spear, but Dog’s teeth dissuaded him from actually grabbing it. Behind us, I heard the sounds of bowstrings being pulled taut.
“You might not want to do that.” I growled over my shoulder.
They didn’t listen to my warning.
When I heard the twang of an arrow being loosed, I spun to the side, letting the arrow pass through the space I’d just occupied. I roared a challenge to them, and they lowered their bows slightly. They kept the arrows nocked, but pointed them away from us.
“Take me to the Lord of the Vultures. We’re old friends. He’ll want to see me.” I said with a toothy smile.
The two bowmen exchanged glances beneath their headscarves. They nodded to one another and trained their bows on me once more.
“Stop!” Nokomi shouted from the wagons, quickly dismounting and rushing our way.
Instead, the two men turned to aim at her instead. Halina jumped down to put herself between the men and the princess, which meant that foolish Jahan had to do the same, despite his mother’s frantic cries.
“Nokomi!” I growled. She’d just put herself in an impossible situation. I wasn’t going to be able to stop two arrows before they got to her. No matter how far I let myself go toward the beast’s side, that would be beyond my speed.
“That’s quite enough.” A deep voice called. A great monster of a dog crested a dune, followed by a man nearly as broad as he was wide.
At his command, the soldiers stood down, putting away their arrows and standing at attention, their short bows held in their left hands.
“This is some welcome you had waiting for me, Tiny.” I called over to him, letting my displeasure carry in my tone. Dog kept our man cornered in his shelter, though he put his teeth away, giving his snarl a pause.
Tiny’s deep laugh echoed in the little depression between hills we were caught in. “When I smelled you and Dog on the wind, I just had to see how rusty my old Pack Leader had let himself get.” He grinned widely, his lips parting to show jagged teeth beneath his scraggly beard.
He shuffled down the sand with all of the grace of a rolling stone. Sand tumbled ahead of him, cascading down the slope. I waited for him to make his way down, observing the costume he’d assembled. He wore simple desert garb covered in a grey cloak that looked as ragged as any beggar’s, and he’d worked hundreds of long, dark feathers into it. They blew in the wind, surrounding him like wings. Shiny stones had been worked into the cloth of his head wrap, giving him the illusion of having eyes and a beak. He had taken the title of Lord of the Vultures very literally, it seemed.
He stopped some five paces away from me, with his beast of an animal beside him. Bear had definitely not gotten any smaller since I’d last seen him. If anything, he was larger, which was impressive. I’d been a young man when I’d first met Bear and Drum, Bear’s original partner. Bear had seemed huge to me then, but after rebonding to Tiny, the animal had grown. I was certain that at his current size, he was even larger than Teeth. That didn’t even begin to cover the changes in Tiny, who had been the smallest boy at the Kennel. I might have still been a bit taller than him, but Tiny was more broad and solid than even Adish.
“I see you’re well-fed in the desert.” I remarked casually.
Tiny laughed. “You’re just upset that you can’t call me ‘Tiny’ anymore.”
“You’ll always be Tiny to me, oh majestic Lord of the Vultures.” I gave him a mocking bow, grinning across the space between us.
Tiny threw open his arms and walked into an embrace. I hugged him back fiercely. Dog and Bear reacquainted themselves in the way of dogs, allowing the cornered soldier to finally escape and go to join his fellows on the hill.
“By the Gods, you smell as if you eat like a vulture.” I grumbled, exaggerating a bit. My nose was sharper than a human’s, so I did pick up on some interesting smells about him, likely from the feathers.
“It’s part of the mystique.” Tiny tried to look offended, but couldn’t manage it. He flapped his cloak like wings.
I wrinkled my nose. “I’m surprised your enemies don’t smell you coming.”
“Enough, enough!” He gave me a playful punch on the shoulder with a meaty fist, which actually hurt, even when he didn’t put much force into it.
“Go?” Nokomi called over.
“Is that who I think it is?” Tiny asked. “From the statues?”
I smiled at that. They’d put statues of the whole royal family up at the Kennel. Drum and Bear had defaced Nokomi’s statue with the whole of Pack Chahar, precipitating a fight that ultimately led the further conflict and the death of Tiny’s first dog. Losing his dog had nearly killed Tiny, and I’d put down Drum like a sick animal because of it.
I was not innocent in the whole scheme, because I’d been as unwilling to back down as any of them. The unfortunate thing was that Tiny had taken the brunt of the suffering, not me. I still regretted how it had all happened, even if Tiny and Bear had been able to connect and save each other from the death that inevitably claimed any who lost their master or their dog.
“Nokomi.” I agreed, waving her over.
“You made it back to her after everything.” Tiny said admiringly. “Good for you.”
I smiled at that. “She is everything I ever wanted, and more.”
“And does she actually want you back?” He asked, half-joking, but also pointing out that what we are does not make relationships easy.
“I think she does. I feel that she does.” I answered.
Tiny watched me watching her and realization dawned upon him. “She is part of your pack.”
I nodded. No use denying it, not to one of our kind. He’d know I was being false with him. “She has been ever since that day when I was a boy. She bonded herself to me, and Dog and I claimed her at ours.”
Nokomi approached slowly, with Halina and Jahan flanking her and leading by a half step, acting the part of her bodyguards. Jahan didn’t have either the size or the walk to pull it off, but he tried. I could see Adish and Sherine arguing about their son’s sudden bravado, but they made no move to stop him, which I am sure he appreciated. It was hard to be a tough guy with your mother watching. Barid wisely stayed out of it, managing to keep Jaleh and Radwan out of harm’s way while their parents argued about their older brother.
“Princess.” Tiny gave her a low bow that was surprisingly graceful for such a broad man. Truly, it was hard to see that scrawny lad in this mountain of a man.
She inclined her head in a stately manner, curtsying ever so slightly. “I am not sure what to call you in return, other than ‘Lord of the Vultures,’ but it is a mouthful, and it does not exactly seem flattering…”
“Ahh, but you don’t understand the compliment my enemies have paid me by naming me thus. Vultures are survivors. Like them, my men and I are quite good at finding food and riches in the desert, and in this place,” Tiny turned to indicate the desert around us, “there are many unsuspecting treasures to be found.”
Nokomi just stared at him, unsure of what to say. She smiled politely and waited until I cleared my throat.
“Zamir.” Tiny offered hastily. “I would be honored if you called me, Zamir, Princess Nokomi.” He smiled toothily.
I glanced sideways at Tiny, surprised that he’d shared his private name with her. I knew that he’d sought out his family after he left the Kennel. Apparently, he had found them, and he’d learned his birth name. Perhaps it was more fitting than ‘Tiny.’
His smiled faded, his face turning all business. “Now, what brings the illustrious Captain Goren and the beautiful Princess Nokomi out into my wild kingdom of sand and snakes?”
“She has not come alone, Lord Zamir.” The Empress announced, joining the conversation. She knew how to make an entrance, appearing both regal and maternal as she strolled up to us with her son on her hip, letting the wind tug at her hair and simple clothes. She looked like a desert goddess.
Tiny looked to me in surprise. If he’d recognized Nokomi from her statue, then there was no mistaking who this other woman was. “What exactly have you gotten me into, Go? First the Princess, now the Empress, and if I’m not mistaken, that is the heir?”
With him, I would not mince words. Our history was too deep. I would not and could not lie to him about the business we were about. “Civil war, my friend. We are about civil war and the opportunities such a thing brings for men of heart with strong swords and vicious dogs.”
Tiny silently regarded the lot of us, pausing before answering. “I had heard of some disturbance in the capitol. Merchants fleeing the city before it could be locked down carried with them the most curious news.”
“What you’ve heard is true. The Emperor, my husband, was murdered by his brother.” The Empress met Tiny’s eyes with her own formidable gaze. Her voice nearly cracked, but that was understandable, and it lent her a vulnerability that spoke of her strength as well. “My daughter, my son, and I have fled, and we are looking for friends.”
“I am most sorry for your loss, Empress Anahita.” Tiny’s sad expression swept to take in both the princess and the baby heir.
The Empress shook her head. “Now is not the time to grieve, Lord Zamir. Now is the time to seek revenge and reclaim what should belong to my children, not the murderous swine that now sits on my husband’s throne.”
Tiny’s eyes glittered with a hungry sort of excitement that I knew meant we had just found our allies. “This is not a conversation meant for the middle of the desert, fair Empress. The sand has eyes and ears, they say, so let me invite you all back to the comfort of my home, that we might plot and plan your triumph.”
“That would be most appreciated.” The Empress admitted.
Tiny whistled and more of his men appeared, popping out of hidden places that even Dog and I had overlooked. No less than a dozen soldiers had appeared, far more than I likely could have handled on my own.
“This is my kingdom, Go.” Tiny said smugly when he noticed the look on my face. “And I knew what you’d be looking for.”
The Empress met my eyes with a look of approval. She found Tiny and his secret army acceptable. Tiny was a hard man now, the sort of man it took to survive out in a place like this. He and his kind were exactly the type of men we needed beside us in times like these.
I’d done right by bringing them here.
The desert was an old friend.
I’d spent most of my adult life traversing its unpredictable sands, chasing one enemy or another for Emperor Baraz. It was no different with the royal family in tow. In the desert, you do your best to cross the sands and hazards they hold as quickly as possible, while conserving energy and water when possible. But the desert is a fickle place, and a storm can come up quickly, or the heat can be endless. You watch and wait for something to happen, knowing it is unlikely to occur, but watching lest it catch you unaware. Being unprepared, uninformed, or found lacking in the desert means death more often than not.
Barid had a fair knowledge of many of the major trade routes to neighboring cities, so that, coupled with my own experience and memories of local maps would make the going less treacherous, but no less onerous. Straight out of the city, I did not have the luxury of caution. I had to catch up with the others.
It was nerve-wracking being apart from them. We’d separated at the city, where Halina’s sweet-talking of the city patrol had been their ticket out of the city. They would have failed, had it not been for her. Barid’s own smooth words had not quite been enough to convince the guards as to the need for bringing whole families along with him on a trading run. They’d made it past the checkpoint, and that was all that I’d needed to see.
After that, I’d worked my way through the city using side streets and back alleys. When we approached the gate, I changed clothes and put Dog in a burlap bag. He’d hated it, but dressed like a simple wanderer, I’d managed to leave without question, whereas with Dog walking beside me, I’d likely have been recognized or at least stopped for questioning. I’d had to exit the city heading west, while the others went north.
Dog had been much relieved to be let out of the bag, even if he’d only been in it for a few minutes. I promised him to never do it again, and we had begun the race to catch up to the others. The city was a large thing, and the others had a head start on us. We cut across hours of scrubland to catch up, no easy feat, even if they were only traveling by cart and pony. While Dog and I enjoyed each other’s company, no amount of peace and quiet could have alleviated the terrible anxiety of waiting to see if they’d made it clear of the city without incident.
Yes, they’d been allowed to leave the city, but there was nothing to say a patrol wouldn’t have caught up with them afterward. Bandits could have waylaid them, or any number of other unfortunate things could have occurred to them since we’d split up.
Cresting a rise and seeing the two wagons trudging on had been nearly the best feeling I’d felt in days, other than that moment before I’d gone out on the rooftops and Nokomi had showed me just how much she worried about me. Thinking of that brought an extra layer of warmth to my heat and exertion-warmed face.
Dog yipped excitedly and broke off at a full speed, dodging scraggly bushes, barrel cactuses, and dusky-colored lizards alike as he ran. Even tapping into our shared abilities, I was unable to keep up with him. My feet always sank more deeply into the sand than his capable paws did. He was built for this type of terrain.
We were noticed as we approached, not that Dog’s excited barks or my dessert robes billowing behind me gave us any hope of surprising them. Adish’s children quickly pointed out Dog. They’d been quite taken with him, and they were nearly as eager to have him back at their sides as Nokomi felt to have me beside her once more.
I had felt our bond growing stronger as we’d neared each other, and with that closeness came shared sensations and emotions. I wasn’t sure what all she felt from my side of the bond, but it was not likely much. From me, there was little more than anxiousness, sand, sweat, the oppressive sun, and breathing to take in.
From what I could sense of her, I knew how cramped she’d found the space between the crates, which was oppressively hot and cramped, even after they’d loosened the straps that held the canvas down to let in more air. I had been able to feel the sweat trickling down the nape of her neck as assuredly as if it were my own neck. I knew her left leg was cramping, and her shoulders hurt from the position she was sitting in.
I also knew the crippling fear that had taken her upon learning that we had left her alone. Not alone, truly, but without us, without her pack. Pack was something she’d begun feeling more keenly these last few days. She’d already lost her father and Kalb. Her sister had been captured by her uncle, betrayed by her intended husband. That didn’t even count the number of servants and palace staff she’d been close to that had been killed when Navid had taken the palace, people like Lila or Masih. The potential for also losing me had been more than she could handle. She’d been reduced to tears at feeling the distance in our bond. Her soft crying may not have been heard over the noise of the wagon, but I’d felt it.
She’d had enough when she heard Dog’s approaching barks, and the canvas was peeled back finally for her to climb free. She jumped down, stumbling as her stiff limbs protested at suddenly being put to work after being cramped in that space. Then she came striding across the last twenty or so paces, her sweat-streaked face flushed for half a dozen reasons, some of which she probably didn’t even want to admit.
“How dare you desert me!” She clenched her fists tight and glared at me as Dog jumped and yipped and tried to get her attention. She had none for him at that moment.
I broke into a laugh. It wasn’t funny, not really, but I was out of breath from running, Dog was resorting to all sorts of antics to get her to look at him, and Nokomi looked more out of sorts than I’d ever seen her.
“What’s so funny?” She demanded.
I shook my head, still catching my breath. “I don’t know.” I finally managed.
“Then stop laughing like an idiot and hold me.” She growled.
That, I could do. Talking, not so much. I threw a rough embrace about her and panted, placing my chin on the top of her head.
“You’re sweaty.” She mumbled her complaint against my chest.
“You’re not far behind me.” I replied sweetly, plucking a sweaty strand of her hair from my face.
She pulled away and took a step back, glancing over her shoulder long enough to note that we had an audience, not that there were a lot of other things to look at out here. At least Dog had moved on to more receptive audiences. He was chasing all three of Adish’s kids. With our arrival, everyone had halted and dismounted to stretch legs and relive themselves as needed.
Nokomi leaned in toward me to give me one last warning. “Don’t ever leave me like that. No one told me what was going on until you were gone.”
I gave her an apologetic look. “They would’ve looked for me, and I don’t think that there was room enough for Dog and I in that coach with you.”
“Still. Never do that again, not without telling me first.” She put her hands on her hips and leveled her most regal expression at me.
“Okay.” What else could I say to that?
She reached out and shyly took my hand in hers. That made me smile – inwardly, since my face hurt. She’d just hugged me and publicly declared her affections for me in front of nearly everyone I knew and most of her family, but now she could barely take my hand.
With a gentle tug, she led me back to the others. Barid met my eyes with that sort of look that one young guy gives another when he sees him doing well. I nodded to him, and indicated Halina with a raised eyebrow. She stood nearby him with her arms folded across her chest, watching Nokomi and I. Barid grinned back, but tried to hide the source of his amusement from her when she noticed him smiling. Halina shot me a suspicious look, but I looked away when Nokomi spoke again, this time loud enough for all to hear.
“I believe it’s time for you to tell us where we’re going, Go. You gave Barid general directions, but no specific destination.”
“We’re going to see the Lord of the Vultures.” I answered lightly, as if it were not a big deal.
“What?” Adish looked taken aback. I didn’t blame him, considering that we had his whole family, including the women and children, with us.
“The bandit?” Jahan asked. Even one as young as he had heard of the notorious figure.
“Why would we go to see this man, and who is he?” The Empress asked quickly. Living in the palace, a folk figure like the Lord of Vultures might not be spoken of in front of her, especially if it was something the Emperor hadn’t wanted her to know of.
“He’s a bandit lord, and he travels with a lion the size of a horse!” Jahan filled her in. The young man was grinning madly, clearly imagining meeting the man already.
“It’s not a lion. It’s a dog, and it’s actually closer to the size of a bear.” I remarked calmly, trying to ignore the steadily increasing pressure of Nokomi’s hand upon mine.
Empress Anahita’s expression took on an unpleasant cast. “Explain yourself.”
“I went to school with him. We are old friends.” I explained. “I trust him to shelter us, and, if we can convince him to join our cause, we may very well have an army behind us next time we meet Navid.”
Barid stared at me in wonder and a little bit more respect than he’d had just a moment ago. “You went to school with the Lord of Vultures? Exactly when was that, and what sort of school as this?”
“It was at the Kennel, where boys of the Old Blood were trained to serve the Emperor. He was one of my closest friends until his dog was killed by a boy that became unbalanced. After I ripped out the murderer’s throat for the Emperor, the bereaved boy was able to successfully bond himself to the dead boy’s dog.”
“You killed someone?” Jahan’s jaw dropped. Sherine gave him a look.
Dog gave me a look, and I knew I had to clarify. “Well, it was more for vengeance than for the Emperor, if I’m being honest. He offered me his sword to deal the justice unto the murder, but it was more fitting for a dog to be put down the way I did it.” I elaborated.
Adish looked away, a pained expression crossing his face. He suddenly took to studying the scrubland vegetation instead of me. Beside him, Sherine sighed a motherly sigh, the kind you just couldn’t help doing when a bad child just admitted to doing something far worse than you’d expected of them... and they were proud of it. She gave me a pitying look and led her children aside to go relieve themselves, rather than hear more talk of killing.
“And what makes you think that he would wish to help us? The Empress asked. She had no qualms about the justified killing of a murderer.
“I know Tiny. He will help us.” It was the best answer I had. Regardless of his path since we’d parted ways, he would not harm us. He would either turn us away, or he would join our cause.
“The Lord of the Vultures is named ‘Tiny?’” Barid laughed.
“Yeah, but he’s not so small anymore, so I wouldn’t say that name in earshot of him, unless you want to lose your tongue.” I told him quickly.
“And you trust this man?” The Empress had a lot riding on my word. I was vouching for him, and the safety of her family depended upon it.
I nodded. “We would not be going there if I did not. I swear it to you.”
The Empress looked past me in the direction of the city, frowning. She scanned the horizon, as if searching for other avenues open to her, but we both knew there were none. “Our neighboring kingdoms will hesitate to interfere in what might very well become a drawn-out civil war. We need to act swiftly, or we must flee the country and never look back.”
Nokomi shook her head at that. “I’m not leaving Neema in that monster’s clutches. I’ll see my uncle dead, and maybe Dastan with him.”
“And I am with you, my Princess.” Halina said coldly. “Lila’s death requires blood repayment.”
The Empress smiled at the bloodthirsty women around her. “Then I don’t see as we have much choice but to trust this Lord of the Vultures.”
“Where do we find this friend of yours then?” Nokomi asked.
“We just keep going this way. He’ll find me. He must answer my call.” I smiled. Dog’s tail wagged excitedly. It had been a long time since we’d last seen Tiny.
Barid was much like I remembered him to be, but he’d become an older, sturdier version of himself. He’d gone from being an apprentice blacksmith to being a successful craftsman in his own right. He was also older than last I saw him, seeing as I’d been at the Kennel and serving as a soldier for several years. He was a grown man now, the sort that should have been married and starting a family. Somehow, that hadn’t happened yet – surprising for a successful craftsman of growing fame.
“I don’t want to include more people in this, Adish. He’ll be putting his life and business at risk for us.” I’d argued.
Adish had insisted. “He is like a son to me, and he would no more let me risk my family alone than he would cut his own hands off.”
“But if you love him, why would you expose him to this danger?” I’d countered.
“Go, he loves my children as if they were his own. He would do anything to help keep us safe, and we need his help.”
Despite his closeness to Adish’s family, I still wasn’t sold on the idea. “Why do we need him?”
“A shop such as mine would draw unwanted attention if we suddenly packed up two wagons and traveled to a neighboring city to sell goods. I have no way to get you out of the city without gaining the type of attention that we want to avoid. Barid is known in these parts for his craft, and he ships his product as far as Epim.”
And so, Barid had become part of our escape plan. Adish’s eldest boy, Jahan, had been made to peel himself away from watching Nokomi and Halina with puppy dog eyes to deliver the news to his father’s old apprentice. The boy was of an age that he had started taking notice of pretty faces, and those two were certainly worth looking at. It didn’t help that Halina liked catching the boy staring at her, and was quite good at making the kid blush with something as simple as a smile or a wink. There was one thing that Jahan liked more than pretty girls, and that was being part of secrets and doing grownup things, so he went without complaint to fetch his Uncle Barid, as they referred to him.
Barely an hour later, before the sun had fully come up over the buildings of the neighborhood, I’d watched as Barid came rolling up with two wagons full of product, each pulled by a pair of sturdy desert ponies. Crates and careful stacks of his metalwork had been covered with heavy canvases to protect them from the wind, sand, thieves, and prying eyes. Barid entered Adish’s home, leaving Jahan to tend to the wagons. He’d driven the second one anyway, and seemed to have a good manner about the animals.
Adish and I met Barid at the door. Barid had grown taller than me, and he had a firm grip and a smith’s build about him, even if he was not so large a man as Adish. I clasped arms with him, and we eyed each other. He wore a beard along his jaw, kept short to keep it away from sparks and hot metal. He also wore fashionable, if sensible clothes. He was clearly doing well for himself.
What did he see when he looked at me? My eyes still had no gone fully back to their human colors after my last change, but I knew from looking at my face in a glass that some of the green and brown of my hazel eyes had returned. I’d been unable to shave after splitting the corners of my mouth wide, and I knew I looked even wilder for the growth of beard on my face and the sharper teeth that hid beneath my lips. Dangerous, predatory even, I imagined is what he thought. If he felt any fear of me, he hid it well under a warm smile. That surprised me.
“Jahan told me about you, Go. No matter how you look now, you’ll still be the boy from the alleys who loved rat meat and could hardly speak a word.” Barid said with a laugh, patting my hand companionably, as if we were old friends.
I grinned at that, feeling the gashes on my face tug uncomfortably. Thanks to our shared bond, I healed faster than normal, but these were not wounds to heal in a day. Still, in the presence of a handsome fellow like Barid, I felt strangely self-conscious about my face.
Dog surged forward to greet Barid, recalling him well and deciding that this was no foe. As Dog was a great judge of character, I felt myself accept this at face value. Sardar might have turned on me, or at least withheld his aide, but Barid was genuinely here to help.
After offering his affection to Dog, Barid swept into the home with a familiarity of the layout and lack of pause that showed he was still a frequent guest. He hugged Sherine, spinning her around as he affectionately kissed her cheek and then he darted off to find little Jaleh, who he put on his hip and carried around.
Nokomi and the Empress watched the charismatic, young man with amused looks on their faces. He was still carrying Jaleh when he sobered and remembered why he was there. He bowed to each of the three ladies as best he could with the little girl in his arms.
“Empress. Princess. Mistress.” He said to each in turn, his eyes lingering longest on Halina’s brilliant blue eyes. “Your coaches await, though they are not as fine as comfortable as you might be used to.”
An appraising look crossed Halina’s features, and I knew from the lurch in her heart rate that she’d found him very acceptable. Nokomi noticed, too, and a look passed between us.
“Master Barid, I’m told that you are risking your life and livelihood for my family, and I cannot thank you enough. True friends of our family are not forgotten.” The Empress offered, bowing her head slightly in thanks. She rocked Shapur gently.
“Adish’s family is my family. Go is an old friend I am glad to be reacquainted with, and any friends of theirs, no matter their station or plight, are friends of mine. I am pleased to be able to offer my assistance.” Barid replied.
Then Barid bowed a second time so deeply that Jaleh had to cling on for dear life and started laughing. He grinned at the little dark-haired girl, made as if to drop her, and then straightened back up.
“Thank you, Master Barid.” Halina offered a curtsy, then she made a face at Jaleh, who giggled.
Adish’s youngest was a little charmer, and had quickly become a favorite of all the new visitors, much to Radwan’s chagrin. He’d been the youngest and cutest for a few years before his baby sister’s arrival, and he’d never quite been able to regain that status. The little boy milled around at the edges of the conversation, watching closely.
Nokomi, now being a middle child, sensed his feelings, and moved to give the boy some attention while Barid explained the plan. Jaleh climbed down from Barid’s hip and hopped over to try to steal Nokomi’s attention as well, but she was not so easily fooled by that ploy.
Barid looked to the three women and frowned slightly. “You three ladies are much too distractingly beautiful to hide in plain sight. I’ve brought some simple clothes – nothing as fine as you deserve – that you can switch into. We will have to cover and bind your luxurious hair and hide those regal faces. Face covers might be best. Then we can get you into the wagons.”
“Are we to ride out in plain sight?” Nokomi asked, alarmed. Clothes alone would not hide the three ladies’ identities.
Barid shook his head. “The Empress will have to hide, as will you, Princess. Adish’s family will ride in one wagon, with the Empress hidden between crates along with the baby.”
“And I will be hidden in the other wagon with you?” Nokomi surmised.
“Yes.” Barid nodded.
“And what of me?” Halina inquired.
“They will not be looking for you, not without the Princess beside you. Therefore, you have two choices: go separately and meet us outside the city… I have a pony you can borrow.”
Halina’s eyebrow rose. Clearly, she didn’t like separating from Nokomi. Her hidden knives would do no good if she wasn’t there to use them. “Or?”
Barid colored, clearing his throat. “Travel as my wife, sitting beside me on the driver’s bench.” His hand scrubbed through his hair, and he offered a roguish smile.
Halina slid to his side gracefully, putting on a smile that made Barid blush more deeply. “That sounds much better, husband of mine. I would not want to leave the Princess’ side. I need to see her safely outside the city. One can never be too careful in these trying times.” A knife quickly appeared in her hand, which she used to playfully poke at the underside of Barid’s chin.
Barid cleared his throat again, put his hand on her dainty but dangerous wrist, and met her gaze. “You have nothing to fear from me, Mistress Halina. My intentions are honest.”
A little bit of hidden tension melted out of Halina then. She took the knife with her other hand, hiding it once more in the hidden sheath inside her skirts. “Then we should be off, Master Barid. The longer we wait, the greater danger there is of discovery, danger to this family and the royal one.” She said, still not taking her eyes off of his.
Barid released her wrist reluctantly. Then, as dramatically as he’d entered, he swept from the room, returning moments later with simple travel clothes he’d brought with him. The muslin fabric was simple and coarse. The cuts would not flatter any of the women’s figures, but they certainly did not look as if they belonged to any woman who lived in a palace.
Within minutes, with Sherine’s help, the women were disguised as best they could be. They’d even seen to some makeup, painting both Nokomi and the Empress in a way that declared them to be locals, hiding their rich skin tones and dramatic eyes. With their hair bound and covered, it was almost hard to see who they were. Only someone who truly knew them well would be able to identify them.
After that, Adish and Barid loaded up the children. Sherine cast a worried look back at her home, and then mounted the coach, sitting beside Adish. Radwan sat between them, and Jaleh sat on her mother’s lap.
Barid and I made a show of loading goods and supplies in the wagon, which was really just a distraction to allow the Empress to settle in the open space between crates. When she was as comfortable as she could be on the small straw mats with the babe huddled against her, we cinched the wagon cover back down.
Next came Nokomi. We repeated the process with her, allowing her to settle in before covering her. Halina climbed up on the bench beside Jahan, who was still seated as the driver. He was pleased to have her beside him, even dressed in simple garb that hid much of her beauty.
Jahan started to grumble when Barid made him scoot over, taking the driver’s reins, at least until he realized that he would have to sit even closer to Halina. He grew very quiet and very red in the face. Halina made it worse by taking his hand in hers companionably. I shook my head at her, but she just grinned. It was good that she could find some levity in such a bad situation.
Barid looked to me then from the driver’s seat and motioned me over. I stepped over and he spoke to me in low tones. “I will see them safely from the city. You will meet up with us outside the city?”
I nodded. “They’ll be looking more for me than any of you. I’d give you all away.”
He offered me a hand. “Be careful, Go.”
I seized it and gave him a firm shake. “Get them there safely.”
Halina cast a questioning gaze my way, but understood when I did not board either of the coaches. She knew what it might mean to be seen with me, and there was not enough room in the coaches for Dog and I to hide.
Barid turned his gaze back forward and snapped the reins, kicking the ponies into action. He led the way, with Adish’s family following on the second wagon. Adish nodded to me as they passed. He did his best to appear calm and collected, but I could smell the apprehension on him.
Sherine started singing softly as she went, a traveling song for children that carried over the clop of hooves and the clatter of wagon wheels on the street cobbles. I watched them leave, feeling a piece of my heart go with them.
Dog and I sprang into action then, shadowing the convoy from a block or more away. We would see them to safety, no matter the cost.
“Must you go?” Nokomi asked. It was the closest she’d allow her voice to get to actual pleading.
I met her eyes and nodded. “I must try to meet with some of the others before I go. They must know that we have not given up, that we will gather our forces and rally against Navid.”
She put her hand on my forearm. “You are hurt. It is not safe for you to go.”
“It is not safe to not go, Nokomi. You know that we will need every soldier we can find, and the Emperor’s Dogs…” It felt strange to call them that still with the Emperor dead. “They are worth more than any other soldier we can find.”
She withdrew her hand and folded her arms across her chest, turning away from me. “I know what you say is true, but I wish you could stay. We only just escaped with our lives, and you’re ready to throw caution to the wind and run back out there.”
I reached for her, hesitating, my fingertips stopping just shy of her shoulder. Gone were my claws, but the scabbed ends of my fingers were not pretty, and they were a definite reminder that she and I were very different creatures. “I wish I could stay, but this must be done.”
“Sometimes, I wish we could just run away, be done with all of this – the expectations, the roles, the fighting.” She sighed.
“Without being who you are and me being who I am, we’d never have met, Princess.” I said softly. I placed my hand on her shoulder then, finding my bravery, if just for that moment.
She covered my hand with her own, and looked back over her shoulder at me. I watched those warm eyes for a long moment, but Dog came between us then, literally. He began nosing at the both of us for attention, as if she and I weren’t allowed to touch if he wasn’t involved.
I snorted a laugh, which pulled at the wounds on my cheeks. Halina had offered to stitch them up, but I had a suspicion that stitches might make future changes harder. I didn’t know when I would have to go that far into the beast again, and I wanted nothing holding me back when the time came.
“Be quick and be safe.” Nokomi smiled down at Dog, giving him her hand to sniff. “Both of you.”
“Actually, I’ll be going alone.” I said quickly.
“What?” She stared at me as if I were truly a strange creature in that moment, and that was saying something.
“I need to go on the rooftops, and Dog would just slow me down. I don’t plan on going far or going for long. This is something I can do by myself.”
“You can do that? Aren’t you just a normal person without him beside you?”
I smiled at that thought, that I would ever be normal. “We’ve been practicing being apart, so it should not present any issues. Dog and I are bonded whether he is right next to me or not, but great distances would make things more difficult.”
“I will keep Dog company then, while we wait for your return.” Nokomi offered, kneeling to get at Dog’s level. She hid her worries by paying attention to Dog, instead of letting me see the concern on her face.
“I’m sure he’ll appreciate that. As will I.” I reached for my cloak then, which Sherine had hung on a peg near the entry.
“Go.” Nokomi said my name softly.
I pulled the cloak around my shoulders and looked back to her, finding her suddenly very near to me. There was a strange light in her eyes, worry and something else.
She reached out, grabbing the front of my shirt and pulling my face down to hers. Her lips pressed gently against mine in a chaste but affectionate gesture. I smiled against her mouth, and she opened her eyes, a hint of merriment dancing in them. My cheeks flushed, and I kissed her back for real, my hands seizing her waist and holding her against me.
“Come back to us.” She whispered when we broke apart.
“I will.” I nodded. “Bolt the door behind me.”
Dog whined softly, sharing his concerns, but he knew I would be as safe as possible.
I opened the door and slid out, not trusting myself to look back at her. Instead, I disappeared into the darkness, waiting only until I heard the door bolt before I vanished into the neighboring alleys.
I crept along, searching for the best place to ascend. I found such a place not far down the street and made my way up three floors using windowsills, balconies, ledges, and clotheslines to reach the top of the building. I moved atop the building quietly, heading for the edge, where I could peer out across the city.
The palace was ablaze with the light of many signal fires and torches. Much of the rest of the city, perhaps in response, was uncharacteristically dark. On the far horizon, I could see just the barest hints of dawn creeping into the night sky. I would have to hurry, or I would not make it back home before dawn, and I didn’t want to risk being spotted.
I made my way across the rooftops, sometimes descending a level, only to climb back once more once I’d reached the next block. With my thoughts still on Dog and our connection, I was able to tap into our shared abilities, and so I could leap across spans that no normal man could have cleared. This helped to make sure that my meeting would not be observed by others, not unless they had the same powers as I did. I arrived first, or so I thought. Two figures emerged from the shadows shortly after I arrived.
One of them was Scar. His face was twisted in a nasty grin. Then again, most of his smiles looked pretty gruesome. “I never thought I’d get the drop on you. Dog must be far away from you, if your senses are this dull.”
I said nothing until I could see the other person clearly. To my surprise, it was Sardar. He had been the first boy taken to the Kennel, where he had spent several years as their chief experiment. Much had happened to him in the years he had been there, including the death of his dog, and a subsequent bonding to the dog of another Old Blood child who had died tragically.
“Sardar.” I nodded to him.
“Go.” He replied smoothly. He had a peculiar, detached manner about him. He and the pack he’d made at the Kennel had always acted as one.
“Are there others coming?” I asked.
Scar shook his head. “Not yet. We haven’t had time. I’ll get more, but it won’t be easy. They’re on the lookout around the city for men with dogs.”
“They don’t know we can separate yet.” I surmised.
That was good. It gave us an advantage. Unfortunately, few of the Old Blood could go as far from their dogs as I could and still draw upon their abilities. I was certain that Scar and Sardar both had their dogs within a block or two of this building, perhaps even in the building itself.
“Just tell us where we should meet you.” Sardar replied, but there was something about the way he said it that sounded wrong to me.
I tried not to shift into a more guarded stance, but it was difficult. This smelled all wrong, even to my diminished senses. “Sardar? What are you not telling me?”
Scar took two steps toward me, turning on Sardar. He’d noticed it, too, now that I’d said something.
“We serve the Emperor, Go.” Sardar said simply, his hands going palms up as he shrugged.
“The Emperor is dead, betrayed and killed by his brother.” I growled.
Sardar shook his head. “There must be an Emperor. We cannot be a pack without a master.”
“Then serve Go!” Scar shouted.
Sardar shook his head again. “Go is a dog, Scar, not a man. We must serve a man. That was how we were trained.”
“Sardar, the Emperor’s line continues. He has an heir. We must protect and serve him, not the betrayer.”
“That may be true,” Sardar admitted, “but only if the heir is strong enough to take control. Pack Yek will serve the strongest claim.”
“Pack Yek?” Scar spat on the ground. “That is no more. We are all Pack Sefr – All or Nothing. Remember?”
“We do not wish for more bloodshed.” Sardar said apologetically. “But we realize that some is necessary.”
“Then you will not stop us from gathering the other dogs or an army to fight Navid?” I asked.
Sardar shook his head. “We will say nothing. We will wait for the outcome.”
I nodded, taking note of the shadows rising on the roofs of several neighboring buildings. At least six more of Sardar’s old pack mates had surrounded us, but they made no move to stop us or capture us. It was a show of force, of solidarity, so we would not attempt to harm Sardar for delivering this disappointing news.
Sardar bowed. “May the true Emperor win.” He barked, just loud enough to be heard. A chorus of other barks followed from the neighboring rooftops. Then he jumped to the next roof and disappeared into the failing night.
Scar shook his head and watched them go, his hands balled into fists. “All or Nothing. What does it mean to them?” He spat on the ground again. A little of it dribbled on his chin, because of his mouth.
“If they do not wish to fight with us, at least they are not against us. Those ones were always a little different, a breed apart. They are not savage, as we are.”
“It will take savagery to win this, Go. General Navid is a popular man in the army, with many supporters in the city as well. We cannot win by meeting treachery and murder with polite words and wishful thinking.”
“I know, Scar. Believe me. That’s why I will count on you to gather as many of the dogs as you can. Meet me at the Kennel in three weeks.”
“And where will you go?” Scar wondered.
“To meet an old friend with a very large dog.” I replied, grinning.
Scar’s eyebrow rose, not quite getting the reference. But then, he didn’t know everything that I did. I laughed and vanished into the night, hurrying back across rooftops to Nokomi. I took a roundabout route back to Adish’s house, in case I was being followed. The meeting with Sardar had me watching my back even more than before.
Still, I moved with a hurried step. My forehead burned at the memory of her mouth meeting mine, and I couldn’t wait to get back to her. Sardar had never known the truth about me, that I served her and not the Emperor. Had he known, would he have let me go just now? I doubted it.
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.
The flash of light from the Emperor’s dying explosion blinded many of those that might have blocked our way to the royal residence. Scar and I wove our way between many combatants that had been thrown to the ground by the blast, blinded by the light of it, or were choking on dust cloud that washed out in the wake of the explosion.
I waited until the light behind me faded and risked a glance back. It was hard to see through the dust, falling ashes, and the glowing haze of the crater that marked the Emperor’s point of death, but I could see that the gates that Bull had died keeping open were gone. An entire block of buildings and everyone in or around them had been erased from existence, leaving a smoking hole in the ground. What a waste, I thought sadly, turning back toward the royal residence.
People were screaming ahead of us, as well as all around us. Roof tiles from the palace had cracked and had fallen on the people below. One of the watchtowers to my right, the one nearest the explosion, leaned to one side, lurching slightly as its bell continued to ring. Here and there, I still saw small knots of soldiers fighting, loyalists battling Navid’s usurpers. I had no time for them. The Emperor was dead, there was a fair chance that I was the only hope left for what remained of his family. I would not fail him in that, even if I hadn’t been able to save him. Or Kalb.
I gritted my teeth and willed myself past tears that threatened. I couldn’t believe old yellow-eyes was dead. He and Teeth had been a driving force in my life since childhood, much of it under the direction of Emperor Baraz, also deceased. Another time, another person, and I might have been delighted to be freed from the bonds of servitude, but I had no time for such thoughts. I could only think of Nokomi, who I felt through my bond. She needed me.
Scar struggled to keep up with me. He’d never been able to let his humanity go as easily as I could mine, which was ironic, seeing as how people viewed him as less than human because of his scars. I passed more easily for normal than he ever had, and I had little love for it, while he craved the normalcy that it would have granted him.
A snarl to my left proved to be two more of Navid’s Wolves. Other than the glowing red eyes and the sharp teeth, they could have passed for human. No one would make that mistake of me, not even in the dusk light. I barked a challenge at them, they halted their advance, thought better of it, and fled back the way they’d come. They’d likely kill a few more loyalists instead of hinder Nokomi’s rescue. I was fine with that. Those soldiers weren’t pack. Nokomi was.
We moved on the south side of the residence, where a small bronze dome with pillars supporting its weight had been set up as a stepping stone between the palace and the residence. Known as Heartfire Monument, its floor was inlaid with a mosaic of tiles depicting flames spreading outward from a black center in an artful way that almost resembled a flower, unless you really looked at it.
To my right, I could see groundskeepers’ homes, a village of tiny homes much like the scribes’ village I’d been put up in. Some of them had come out to see what was going on, but many of the smallfolk of the palace knew instinctively to close their doors and shutter their windows when the warning bells rang. It looked clear of enemies, so, we pressed on for the Heartfire Monument.
As we approached it, Scar reached out and touched my arm. I glared at him, but he signaled to the broad pillars that supported the dome. I sniffed the air once, growling low in my throat. I’d been watching our flank, and Scar had noticed enemies that I might have otherwise missed. I barked, Dog echoing my challenge.
Soldiers slid out from behind the pillars, armed heavily. These were not simple foot soldiers. In fact, judging from their armaments, they had been assembled to kill ones such as Dog and I.
I eyed the heavy greaves upon their arms, barred helms, thick chest plates, and the reinforced nooses they carried on long poles. Others held horse spears, weapons designed to fight cavalry with. They thought they could keep me at a distance and take me down. I would have laughed if I had time for such things.
Scar and his black dog looked ready to back me, but I worried. There were a dozen of these soldiers, and likely more already heading toward Nokomi. I could already feel her fear and her sense of loss through our bond. My forehead tingled like a dozen pinpricks, and I let loose a deafening roar of challenge.
I stepped up the five stairs to the platform, with Dog, Scar, and his dog, Black. I smiled at my companions, because in that moment, judging from the smells and nervous shifting of the soldiers’ feet, we had the upper hand.
“All or nothing.” Scar yelled, his words surprisingly clear as he charged the left side of the soldiers.
I followed his lead and went right, except I came in high, while he stayed low. I darted forward and jumped toward the nearest pillar. That leap carried me up over my enemies’ heads, and I used that height to spring off the pillar at the nearest enemy.
I struck him perpendicular to what he’d expected, and he couldn’t turn his horse spear fast enough to protect himself. My crushing blow broke both of his legs, leaving Dog to finish him as I spun off after the next enemy. This one carried a noose, which he whipped toward my head, trying to lasso it around my neck.
There was no way I was going to let him choke me to death with that thing, but if enough of them surrounded me, there was a chance that at least one of them would get lucky. I also had to assume that they’d done this before, likely practicing on some of Navid’s Wolves.
I caught the noose with my hand, intending to rip the pole, noose and all, from his hands. Except, the noose cord was studded with something sharp, and it shredded my hand as he yanked it back. Hissing in anger, I went in low and ripped him open from his ankles to his groin.
That guard crumpled to the ground, blood spurting on my face as another noose fell dangerously close to my neck. The noose scraped my ear instead of finding my neck as I jerked my head to the side. Dog lunged at that soldier, but backed off when another noose came at him. The remaining soldiers quickly spread out, trying to ring us in.
Scar had killed one soldier as well, but he was being pressed into the center of the circle with us. Nine more of these dog hunters ringed us, and they were patient, cautious fighters. They were highly disciplined – I had to give them that. They remained focused even after the bloody deaths of their comrades.
I stepped over to one of the dying soldiers, lifted up his noose, and cast the capped end of it like a spear at one of my enemies before they could react. The pole shattered, and while it did not puncture his breast plate, it did knock him back with the force of a mule’s kick. He staggered backward, tumbling over the railing and falling off the platform. He went crashing to the ground outside very awkwardly, and I seriously doubted he’d get up.
I held up eight fingers to taunt the soldiers, laughing. Dog howled in triumph.
Three of them came at me with their horse spears next, trying to skewer me from the front, my flank, and my back. I jumped to the side, going for the body of another downed soldier. I threw the body at the spears, managing to trap one of them momentarily beneath the dead man’s weight. That was all the time that Scar needed to surge over there and end another soldier’s life.
Scar quickly retreated to my side then, and we held up seven fingers together, four of his with three of mine. I caught the look on his face, a twisted grin that probably matched the one on my own torn face. Undeterred, the remaining soldiers closed their ranks, hedging us in on one side only now, offering us an escape if we wished to retreat back the way we’d come. Getting past them would be much harder.
Even these little triumphs felt too costly, because I could feel Nokomi fighting. I knew she was using her heartfire, because I could feel it as a hot wash across my face from my scarred forehead every time she let her fire loose. I gave another roar, this one of fury and frustration.
That was when I heard an answering howl to mine, followed by another, and then a third.
“The Emperor’s Dogs!” Scar’s eyes flashed brilliantly in contrast to his dark skin.
We had just moments to wait before three more of our kind struck from their rear, vaulting inhumanly high over the railing to attack. Scar cast a look my way before he joined the attack. “Save the Emperor’s family! We’ll handle these ones.”
“Seek me outside the city!” I called to him in the clearest words I could form.
He nodded and fell on the enemy with Black. The last I saw of them, the four men and their dogs were getting the upper hand against the outnumbered dog hunters.
Dog and I ran then, and, in the fading daylight, it brought to mind our one time rendezvous with Nokomi on her balcony. Except, this time we ran along the top of the wall of the Empress’ gardens, approaching from the west rather than the north, and the situation was drastically different.
Days of serving guard duty in the royal residence had granted me a familiarity with its layout. I knew how many paces on a side the wall was, where the stairs were located along the inside of the wall, and where the best handholds were if I had to climb it. I’d always been preparing to attack or escape from this place, no matter what my duties had been. It was how I’d been raised on the streets, to always understand the lay of the land, to know your ins and outs.
We scaled the wall with ease, taking out two of Navid’s men out at the top of the wall without hesitation. I felt Nokomi’s need more intensely as the battle within the walls raged on. Within the residence and on these walls, I saw more soldiers fighting. Soldiers and servants alike lay dead on the grounds and atop the walls. We paid their bodies no heed, advancing on the residence from the grounds, approaching the northwestern tower carefully.
In the smoke and the dusk light, the blue bell-shaped top looked an unwelcoming shade of purple. Above us in the tower, soldiers tried to target us with crossbows, but we hugged the wall, and they could only cast stones down at us, and we weren’t about to let rocks stop us when explosions, spears, wolves, and swords hadn’t been able to.
We quickly rounded the tower, heading toward Nokomi’s balcony. My face felt like it was on fire, and my jaws ached. My fists ached from clenching them so tightly, and I knew that I was starting to fade. I needed to make this happen quickly. I also knew that Dog was nearing his limits. We could not fight and kill forever. We had to rescue Nokomi and get out of the palace, taking the others with us if we could. Deep down, I knew I’d leave everyone else behind if it meant saving her. I hoped it wouldn’t come to that.
I looked to Dog, with his round ears covered with dust and his tongue lolling out tiredly. An arrow sailed overhead, so I reached down for Dog, who was ready for me. I threw him like last time.
He sailed up over the railing onto Nokomi’s balcony, thudding against something I followed him immediately, jumping straight up this time. I caught the bottom of the railing and pulled myself up, swatting another arrow aside as I went.
On top of the balcony, I noticed that the sliding doors had been closed and latched. That left us exposed to arrow fire. Growling, I reached out and grabbed the ornamental handles, tearing the doors open with my bare hands. The handles splintered and came free of the ornamental wood, and the latch gave way.
As soon as I started to slide the doors open, a gout of flame blew past my face. I had very little warning, and my right ear was singed. I heard my flesh sizzle and yelped at the pain of it.
“Stop! It’s the Captain!” Halina shouted.
“Go?” Nokomi called out weakly.
The flash of fire had temporarily blinded me, but when Dog and I advanced into her room, I saw that they had barricaded the entry with furniture and they’d somehow managed to drag the large bed mattress partway over as well. It had several scorch marks on it, and one edge of it still smoldered, filling the room with the stink of burned feathers. Small splatters of blood had been dribbled across the floor, leaking from between Nokomi’s fingers.
On the floor, a soldier with the right side of his body burned away was curled up beside Lila’s still form. Lila’s dead hand still clutched a small knife, but the puddle of blood and the sword wound through her middle indicated she’d died at the hands of this soldier, who had been burned alive by Nokomi. I shook my head at that, thinking that Lila would never again entertain anyone with her imitations of the people she knew and worked with.
“Nokomi.” I tried to say, but it came out as a growl.
“Gods, Captain! Your face.” Halina said in alarm, finally getting a good look at me. She held the dead soldier’s sword and looked as if she knew how to use it. She hesitated, unsure if she might have to use it on me.
Even in her stunned state, pale from the loss of blood and her father, Nokomi could notice that all was not right with me. She did not seem scared of me, at least. Rather, she was scared of the wounds I’d taken. “Go, my father…”
I eased some humanity back into my face, shuddering at the pain of my torn cheeks. The pain was distracting, but communication was necessary, and the more human I became, the more control I had. “I was there, Nokomi. I tried to save him. Kalb did, too. There were just too many.”
Defeat crept across Nokomi’s face, paired with the despair of having confirmation of what she’d known to be true, but prayed as not.
“Where are the others?”
“Mother… Shapur… I tried to get to their rooms, but the hallways were filled with my uncle’s men. They tried to take me.” Nokomi clenched her fist, squeezing her eyes shut tightly. Tears streaked down from the corners of her eyes.
“And your sister? What of Neema?” I asked.
“Dastan.” Halina spat on the floor. “That bastard slipped something in her drink. He surrendered her right away. He said that it was better to live under Navid’s rule than die resisting. I would have killed him, but Navid’s men got there first.”
Dog growled beside me.
“I know.” Halina agreed with him. “Me, too.”
We needed a plan. “Is there a secret way out of the palace? I don’t think we can fight our way out.”
Halina nodded. “Kalb showed me the hidden passages in and out of this place. They lead to the head caretaker’s home, and then there is a passage from there to take us beyond the walls.”
That might work, so long as Navid didn’t also know of them. Either way, we’d have to move quickly, because Navid’s wolves would follow our scents. “Where is the entrance?”
Nokomi nodded, liking our plan. She looked as if she’d gathered her wits about her once more, and she was ready to act. There would be no more hiding for her, at least not until after she’d rescued her mother. “The entrance is upstairs.”
“Upstairs?” It seemed as if it would be downstairs, not upstairs. To go up to go down made little sense, or did it?
“Under the horn statue in the royal library.” Nokomi answered. “But we don’t go without Shapur and my mother.”
“Fine. Let’s go.” I nodded toward the door. “Stay close to me.”
Nokomi spared one last look for Lila, whispered a prayer, and followed me.
I spent the next few hours meeting with the contingent of the Emperor’s Dogs that had arrived and were stationed within the palace. Aside from Legs, I’d found a few familiar faces from the old days, such as Scar, who still had a torn corner of his mouth, and Bull, who had been one of my first friends and companions. The years had aged them all, but they’d grown stronger and more dependable with their experience.
I had arranged for each of them to take a member of the royal family to guard. Scar would guard the Empress, since he was the most vicious and capable of the three of them. Bull was a stalwart friend and warrior, but he was calmer and more suited to guarding someone like Neema, who would not have appreciated Scar’s rough appearance or his aggressive dog. That left Legs to run messages and coordinate with other cells of the Emperor’s Dogs I’d stationed throughout the palace, so that I could watch over Nokomi personally. There was not a one among these three that I would not trust with my life, but Nokomi’s life was another thing.
I was in council with the four of them when I heard the Emperor’s entourage had set out. I frowned at the abrupt nature of the departure. It was a market day, so that meant many extra faces spread throughout the palace grounds, many of which I did not recognize. I growled and headed for the gates, my old companions flanking me.
We formed an impressive knot of aggression that none would challenge. Servants, officials, guards, and folks of all manner made way for us, like prey vanishing before the approach of a lion. If their ears had perked or if they’d sprouted tails to flash warning to one another, I’d likely not have been surprised.
I led the way toward the gates, halting when I saw the Emperor’s party arrive at the gates, where they were greeted. It was a small party indeed, perhaps a score in all, with Teeth flanking the group of mounted men, even though his presence was spooking more than one of the horses. Emperor Baraz was outfitted for travel, not for comfort. He traveled only with those he needed and would likely pick up a larger escort of soldiers at a camp outside the city. Knowing him, he’d have already prepared a handpicked troop loyal only to him.
“He rides light.” Scar muttered through his ruined mouth. He’d practiced for years and was much more understandable these days, although his eating was still horribly messy.
Dog made an unhappy noise, and I shook my head. “I warned them about this.”
“Kalb is with them. He’s like a war elephant on his own.” Legs commented blithely. “What could go wrong?”
We all looked at him, and he shrunk under our collective disdain. I loved the guy, but a messenger like him didn’t always understand the greater picture when it came to pitched battles. Numbers mattered.
The Emperor’s party exited through the main gates, saluted by the officer at the gate and his company of troops. Several accompanied the Emperor’s troop, trotting alongside them with halberds held high. It was a position of honor, one the Emperor bore patiently, seeing as how he wanted speed, not ceremony. That was why he’d chosen such a small group, one without an honor guard.
The gates closed slowly behind them, and the junior officer on duty looked truly happy with himself. I doubted he often got to see the Emperor in person, let alone bid him a fair journey.
It was the last watch of the afternoon, and so it was not a likely time to leave. Most would have chosen to leave in the morning, to put the most distance behind them by starting off early. The Emperor must have chosen a close location to stop over, unless he planned on riding through the night. Either way, he was being unpredictable, and that would make it hard for Navid to attack him.
“Let’s get to our stations.” I suggested. There was little to be gained by watching guards stand about the gates, and I wanted to be as near to Nokomi as I could now that her father had left. “We have duties to be about, important people to protect.”
Scar and Bull saluted me, while Legs stared off in the direction the Emperor had gone. A puzzled look spread across his face.
“Legs?” I asked.
Legs lifted his hand and nodded in the Emperor’s direction. “Is that a man on the roof?”
I turned, following his pointed finger toward a tall estate just a couple rows of property beyond the gates. Sure enough, I saw someone crawling out on the tiled roof. He was not on the balcony, but on the actual roof. That shadow pulled up into a crouch, drawing a bow.
“They’re not even waiting until they get out of the city to attack!” I stared in surprise.
“How did they know?” Scar asked.
I shook my head. It didn’t matter. “To the Emperor!” I shouted, tensing. “Make for the gates!”
I broke into a run, Dog throwing everything he had into it as he charged alongside me. As I did, I noticed more shadowy figures appearing on other rooftops beyond the gates. They’d rip the Emperor apart in the crossfire.
“Move! Move!” I screamed at my companions, and all eight of us, four men and four dogs ran for the gates.
The junior officer who had just bid the Emperor farewell turned to stare at us, a stunned look on his face as I shouted for him to throw the gates open. His helmet plume bobbed lamely in the breeze, and his men hesitated, waiting for an order to do as told or to draw steel and prevent us from following the Emperor.
“What goes on here?” The officer demanded, trying to look full of command, but he lacked the presence.
From beyond the gates, I could hear shouts, the clanging of weapons, and the firing of arrows. We were running out of time.
I let my face go wild, fangs, eyes, and all. Then I growled at the man, “The Emperor is under attack! Now open the gates, or I’ll rip you to pieces!”
The officer went pale, and his chin began to tremble. “What?” He looked to the walls, where soldiers were starting to point in confusion. He frowned and looked back at me.
I’d struck him dumb with fear. Growling, I shoved the man aside. He tumbled backward into the guard shack. A few blades rang free of their scabbards. Dogs around me began to growl, baring teeth, their own version of blades.
“Open the gates! Your Emperor is under attack!” I snarled at the men.
More shouts and the echoes of battle came from outside the gates. One of the watchtowers to the southern side of the gates began to ring a bell. Moments later, others took up the ring. Soon, the whole palace was alive with the ringing of warning bells and the noise of soldiers coming ready to fight.
Except, there was fighting within the walls, too, I realized. Bull looked back the way we’d come, where chaos had broken out. “The market is under attack.”
The officer suddenly realized what was happening, and his simple training took over. “The gates!” He shouted. “Secure the gates!”
At that, men actually jumped into action, closing us off from the Emperor’s rescue. They were trying to protect the palace, which was what they’d been trained to do. The problem was, the Emperor was being attacked outside, and there were insurgents within the walls attacking as well.
I cursed and turned to my companions. “Hold off these fools and get the gates open. Once they’re open, keep them that way. The Emperor may have to retreat this way.”
“Where are you going?” Legs asked, drawing his sword.
“I’m going for the Emperor. Even someone like Kalb is going to need help.” I grinned at Legs.
“All or nothing.” Bull offered a bark.
“All or nothing.” I echoed back.
Dog and I made for the walkways that led to the top of the gates. Soldiers tried to bar the way, but with the beast taking over my arms, legs, and reflexes, they had no hope to do so. It would take more than swords or spears to stop Dog and I.
Soldiers tumbled out of our way as we charged up the wooden stairs. The first two I threw off the stairs, sending them tumbling into a heap on the ground below. Th next one I threw backward into the another and trampled them both beneath our feet and paws. Laughing, we cleared our way to the landing with a powerful leap.
Atop the wall, other guards moved to hedge us in, but they didn’t realize that we weren’t going to walk down the walls – we were going over them. I paused only long enough to take stock of what was going on out in the streets.
A dozen archers had pinned down the Emperor’s small force with arrows, while ground forces had swarmed from the alleys and estates. Navid’s soldiers, I realized. He’d grown so brazen that he hadn’t even bothered to hide the fact that it was him. I couldn’t believe it, even if it’d always been what I’d suspected. All or nothing indeed!
The Emperor’s small cadre of men had drawn swords and small buckler shields. They had ringed themselves around the Emperor, but they were vastly outnumbered. Horses and men were already down in the street, dead from the initial flights of arrows and spear attacks. In the middle of a knot of fighting, I saw Kalb standing beside the Emperor, roaring in a fully glorious version of himself that was closer to animal than man. At his side, Teeth had an arrow sprouting from his side, but he was mauling a man to death as if his wound was nothing consequential.
I threw myself from the top of the wall then, trusting my companions to get the gates back open soon. Three of them were easily a match for twenty confused guards. When I hit the ground, I rose quickly and hunched my shoulders to make a landing surface of my back. Dog’s toenails scratched deep as he landed on me, vaulted over me, and kept running as if the drop were nothing. He bolted ahead, heading for where the Emperor fought for his life. I let my nature take over, and surged forward with him.
I saw the last of the honor guard of gate men fall as I arrived at the fight. I threw myself headlong into battle, needing no sword or weapon when I had my claws and teeth. Like a hammer, we struck the attackers, sending men to the ground battered and torn. The screams of horses and animals filled the streets, music to my savage ears.
Dog worked over the lower halves of men, tearing at femoral arteries and hamstringing foes so I could rip their throats out or gash out their eyes. Roaring deeply, I found myself battling near Kalb and the Emperor, who were rapidly losing human shields.
Another volley of arrows fell upon us. Kalb took one in the shoulder, and the Emperor cursed. I saw that he’d taken one in the leg. He staggered, taking a man in the neck with his sword as he struggled to remain on two feet. His horse was dead beneath him, probably several minutes ago.
The Emperor’s hand went to his leg, coming back dark with blood. He made a fist with his bloodied hand and punched it toward the nearest knot of enemies. A gout of flame erupted from him, engulfing the traitorous soldiers.
Dog snarled at my side, taking the neck of an enemy that had gotten too close while I’d been distracted by the Emperor’s blood magic. I felt a cut across my chest. Another of Navid’s soldiers had just scored my flesh with a spear tip. I snapped the shaft of the spear with a swipe of my claw. Then I drove my foot into his armored chest, shattering his bones beneath it. He was dead before he hit the ground.
Another wave of soldiers poured down the street, moving to overwhelm us.
“There are too many!” I shouted. “Get the Emperor back within the walls!”
Kalb rounded on me, blood dripping down his face from a scalp wound. “Navid will have taken the palace, too, Go. There is no way we’re getting back in the gates. We’re going to be surrounded!”
I shook my head. “My men are getting those gates open.”
A light of hope entered Kalb’s eyes, and he nodded toward the Emperor. “Take him. I’ll hold them off.”
“We go together, or not at all.” The Emperor interjected, gathering a pool of his own blood into the palms of his hands. He eyed me. “Aren’t you supposed to be guarding my family, Captain?”
“You’re the head of the family, Sir, so I am guarding your family at this very moment.” I grinned at the Emperor, killing another enemy as I made light of disobeying his orders.
The Emperor laughed, gathered his focus into his bloody hands, where his blood seemed to coagulate at his will. He mashed his two hands together to create a single mass, which he cast in the direction of the largest concentration of enemies, and we ran. Or, at least we tried to, with me helping the wounded Emperor along.
The explosion that followed that tarry, black blood was deafening. To one of as sharp of senses as I was, it was staggering. Everything went white, and I felt something sting my shoulder. I tumbled to the ground, covering the Emperor’s body with my own.
“Captain!” A voice grunted from under me.
I climbed off of the Emperor and helped him back to his feet. I shook my head, but my ears were still ringing. Smoke drifted across my vision, but I could see that the gates were open. Legs was running to us, while Scar and Bull were holding the gates with their dogs, fending off a number of soldiers with increasing difficulty.
It was then that I noticed I’d been hit with an arrow. It had gone straight through my forearm. I frowned at it, bit through the feathered end of it, and pulled the remainder out the other side.
Dog whimpered at my side, shaking his head. He walked unevenly, clearly dazed by the noise of the last explosion, but we still headed toward the gates. Kalb limped alongside us, with half a dozen wounded soldiers, all that remained of the Emperor’s guard.
I cast a glance back to see several score of enemies still coming our way. There were too many left, even after the wreckage that had been made of their force by the Emperor’s bomb. They ran around the mangled pile of bodies and the cries of burned and broken men.
From the rooftops, another volley of arrows coming our way.
“Arrows!” I shouted, probably louder than I could tell. My ears still rang.
The Emperor turned around. With a spray of blood falling from his bloodied wrist, he cast an arc of fire out to scorch many of the arrows to ashes, but more still came, and he could not stop them all. The soldiers threw themselves in the way of the arrows, taking their deaths instead of allowing their leader to fall.
Legs skidded to a halt beside us, his eyes glowing. He let loose a howl that caused some of the approaching soldiers to falter in their advance.
“Take the Emperor, Legs. Carry him back to the walls!” I ordered.
Legs nodded, hoisting the protesting Emperor upon his shoulder as one might a sack of flour. He bolted back for the safety of the walls then. I laughed to see it. Long-legged and fleet of foot, he was the fastest man I’d ever known, and his floppy-eared dog ran like the wind before him.
“Kalb! Move!” Everything had been reduced to shouts and screams in the din of battle, one-sided or not.
Kalb nodded, stumbling toward the wall. Teeth lagged beside him, his wounds finally slowing him. He’d taken a second arrow at some point. It protruded from his rear left leg, and he limped at half speed, if that. Kalb, fully engaged in his animal’s pain, limped on the left as well.
Dog looked at me, and I knew what he was thinking. Those two wouldn’t make it to the wall, not with so many soldiers closing in. And where were the reinforcements? The palace warning bells were still ringing. My ears did not betray me. I could hear them clanging away, but where were was the palace guard? Where were our reinforcements? Had they all been tied up with the forces inside the walls, or was Navid marshalling his strength within the walls, withholding any assistance for the Emperor.
I snarled and leapt forward, wishing I had the strength to carry both Kalb and his beast. I knew that neither of them would let me take the other. Live or die, they’d do it together.
When the safety of the walls looked to be within our grasp, that’s when Navid’s hammer fell. His wolves fell upon us. Legs didn’t have a chance. The Emperor’s Dogs were raised to be a pack of beasts masquerading as men. We were powerful, but disciplined. A dog pack was much like an army, with ranks and order.
Navid’s Wolves were the opposite. They were a snarling, rabid pack of beasts, all fury and violence without restraint. Three of them burst from the top of the walls without warning. They went right at the Emperor’s rescuer, hitting Legs like cannonballs.
Legs’ ribs were crushed as they hit him, and the Emperor was thrown like a ragdoll upon the cobbled road that led to the gates. Leg’s dog howled in agony when his master went down in a sickening twist of limbs. Navid’s wolves set upon my broken friend and his dog, tearing them to pieces.
I howled in anger, but had no chance to avenge him, for two more of the Navid’s foul creatures burst from the army behind me. They were coming for me, so I let myself go. There was no reason for the human reasoning within me to remain. I needed all of my anger and strength for vengeance.
The corners of my mouth tore as my jaw elongated, making way for savage teeth and wicked fangs. I was not so much dog as I was beast. My muscles rippled and reworked themselves into weapons. My legs felt like catapults, drawn back and ready to spring. I’d never gone so far from my humanity before, but this was not a time for half measures.
I cleared ten paces with a single leap, carrying me into the surprised, red-eyed beast that Navid’s training had fashioned of this boy. I drove my fist through his chest. Dog caught up to me a moment later, seizing the man’s stunned beast in his jaws and ending it with his bone-crushing teeth.
Another of Navid’s foul creations sought to take my life from behind, but I was far faster than he bargained for. I gutted him with claws as long as daggers and left him crying on his entrails. His dog bit me once before I broke its back with an elbow driven down into its spine. It shuddered and died badly.
Navid’s army tried to close around me, but I quickly showed them how foolish that was. I shredded metal and flesh alike with my claws. When I could, I took their weapons, casting them with deadly accuracy at any of the bowmen who tried to line up a shot at me from what they believed to be the safety of the rooftops. How wrong they were. They fell like sparrows struck with sling stones, breaking on the ground when they hit.
Still they came, and I was vaguely aware of the screams of my allies, but I was unable to bring myself back enough to care. I was fully into my bloodlust, and I was letting the ground drink deeply of enemy blood.
I am sure that I took wounds, but in that state, I could not feel them. The ground grew slick with blood and gore, but there was no end to the death I dealt.
I battled on, killing with claws and teeth and sword alike. Dog was a wind of death beside me, and I’m afraid I did not recognize friend or foe until I heard my name.
“Go!” A voice screamed.
I rounded on this new enemy, only then realizing it was the Emperor calling my name. He’d lost his helmet, blood obscured half of his face, and he was covered with dust and blood. His sword was the only thing keeping his body upright; he used it as a walking stick. Even in his obvious pain he could not hide how terrifying he found my appearance.
“We are lost, Go.” He choked out the words, struggling to breathe.
I looked down, smelling and sensing mortal wounds. The Emperor had lost too much blood. Not far away, Kalb lay on the ground, his face torn and his breath making bubbles in his blood.
“Kalb.” I tried to say, but my mouth could not make words any longer, not human ones anyway. I howled instead.
“Save my family.” The Emperor begged me, clasping weakly at the front of my torn uniform.
I nodded, wishing I could say something profound, but I had nothing. Words could not express what I felt.
He pushed away from me, heading for the largest concentration of the enemy. They gathered around him, hedging in the Emperor with spear tips and ready blades. I knew what he was going to do, so I ran then, killing another of Navid’s wolves on the way.
I gathered Scar to me. He was injured, but he was the only one left of my friends. Bull had been killed holding the gates. I would have mourned my friend, but I had no time. I had to get to Nokomi before Navid’s men did, and I feared too much time had already been wasted.
I paused only once, looking back at the Emperor as he fell. I thought I saw a smile on his face as a soldier rammed a sword through his chest. He cried out as he died, Anahita’s name, I think. Even in death, he was not finished.
I quickly turned my eyes as a flash of white erupted from the Emperor’s body, growing like a fountain of fire that crumpled buildings and erased people in its wake. The explosion rocked the entire palace.
I used the confusion to get to the woman I loved.
I woke beside Nokomi, with Halina and Lila huddled together behind me. Dog had eventually found his way back into the bed as well, with his back pressed against Nokomi’s.
My eyes opened and I yawned quietly, stifling the noise against the back of my hand. Even so, it was enough to wake Nokomi. A momentarily look of guilt crossed her face as she realized where I was. She lifted her head to look past me at her two handmaidens, who were both fast asleep still.
“You should go.” She mouthed to me.
I nodded and levered myself up with an elbow. I made to leave, but her hand caught mine first, and she pulled me down to press her lips against my cheek. I smiled at that, enjoying the warm softness against my face.
“Be safe.” She whispered ever so faintly into my ear, and then she let me go.
“You, too.” I whispered back.
She gave Dog a playful swat on the haunch as he stood. Then Dog and I made for the edge of the bed, lifting the netting over us instead of searching for a seam. I walked quietly around the edge of the bed to pick up my boots.
As I bent down to collect them, I noticed one of Halina’s blue eyes on me. It was a strange look, something between thankfulness and warning. She didn’t trust me fully, but she appreciated that I’d been able to comfort Nokomi, I supposed.
I nodded to her and plucked my boots off the floor. Dog and I departed swiftly. I put my boots on before I left her outside room, sliding out into the hallway, only to find Teeth waiting for me. That’s not something you appreciate in the morning, a giant beast waiting for you on the other side of a door and looking none too pleased.
“Good morning, Captain Goren.” Kalb was seated on a bench on the blind side of the doorway, and I did not see him until the door swung shut behind me.
“Kalb.” My face flushed, but I’d done nothing wrong. Not really.
“The Emperor has orders for you.” He stood and brushed the wrinkles from his robes of office. “Walk with me.”
I cleared my throat and nodded, falling in beside him. Dog stayed at my side, keeping his distance from Teeth, who smelled grumpy.
We entered the main hallway, heading toward the stairs that led to the upper levels of the residence. The stairs to the upper dome were near the middle of this floor, as it was much smaller than the lower dome that made up most of the residence.
Pairs of guards parted to allow the minister and his company access to the upper floors. These stairs were much more modest, leaving only space for the two of us and our dogs to walk abreast.
The third floor had a much more enclosed feeling to it, likely because the halls were narrower and the ceilings were not nearly so high as on the lower levels. Instead of stone, much of this floor seemed to be done with polished, fragrant woods. The inlays had been carved with geometric patterns, rosettes of ellipses and arcs.
“The Emperor’s private library.” Kalb announced, noticing my nose twitching.
That explained the dust and old parchment. There was more of it in the room we entered, a wide place filled with trophies and shelves of books. There were swords and armor on display, as well as interesting crystals formed in delicate hues of blue and red. More than anything, my eyes were drawn to a sculpture made of wild animal horns at the center of the room, with horns of ibex, gazelle, and springbok. It looked like a blazing star, all formed of animal horns. There was something primal about it that I appreciated.
Emperor Baraz was seated in an old wooden chair, waiting for us near that horned sculpture. He had a well-worn leather bound volume sitting on his lap. He looked up as we entered, his tired face looking more worn and worried than I’d ever seen it. His face looked sallow, almost sickly or weak. Perhaps the deaths over the last night had been harder on him than on Nokomi.
“Minister. Captain.” He greeted us each in turn.
“Sir.” I sketched a hasty bow.
The Emperor stared at me for a long moment. “I trust you are keeping a good watch over my family?”
“I am keeping a very close watch.” I answered swiftly, a blush filling my cheeks once more. It was a good thing the sun had darkened my complexion to hide it.
Beside me, Kalb’s mouth twitched with amusement, but he said nothing to betray me. However, it was entirely possible that the Emperor already knew where I’d slept the night before.
“Kalb and I are leaving. We’re going to meet with an envoy from the Kingdom of Arven.”
This news surprised me. “So soon? Your child was just born.”
The Emperor’s eyes hardened. “I’m aware of that, Captain, but the politics of a nation do not wait for personal reasons, not even if you’re the Emperor.”
“I understand, Sir. I just meant…” I started to explain myself, but Kalb grunted, signaling me to close my mouth. I did. Dog sat meekly on his haunches.
“I would prefer not to leave, but this is not a matter that can wait. Between the conflict at Saluud and the deaths last night, I need to get moving quickly.”
“What would you have of me? Should I accompany you?”
The Emperor shook his head. “General Navid will be staying behind. I need you to keep an eye on my brother and see that he is not up to no good.”
I bit my lip, refusing to ask the question that burned on my tongue, but the Emperor noticed.
“Yes? You have something to say, Captain Goren?”
“Is this not the opportunity he has waited for? Are you not possibly playing into his hands by leaving the seat of your power?”
The Emperor smiled and looked to Kalb. “Explain it to him.”
Kalb nodded. “If he truly is the one behind all of this, he cannot help but take this opportunity. He will make his move when he thinks the Emperor is distracted. That is why I’ve positioned our most loyal soldiers throughout the residence. Our best soldiers are ready to defend the royal family.”
I still wasn’t sure that I agreed with this tactic. A pack was strongest together. Dividing himself from his defenses made him vulnerable. “Would it not be better to take him with the two of you? How easily can he threaten the family if he is not here to direct the attacks?”
Kalb frowned, his lips pursing under his beard. Did he also have his doubts? He went silent, and the Emperor answered directly.
“Whoever is behind this, they are cautious, always moving behind the scenes. So it has been for many years. We need to finally create a situation where they feel like they can make an outright move. I can’t afford to play around any longer, waiting for them to make a mistake and expose themselves by accident. If it is Navid, he will not make any move while he is beside me. If it is him, then my family is safer yet with him here, as they will target me on the way to Arven and not them.”
“We’ve moved many of the Emperor’s Dogs back to the capitol, Go.” Kalb offered, as if this was as good as the Emperor remaining safely in the city. “You can call on them to defend the royal family. There are several in the city, and more arriving on the palace grounds.”
My mind whirled with the possibilities, and I could not help but ask the one thing no one was saying, “And what if you fail, Sir? What if you die on that road to Arven?”
“Then I will have vastly underestimated my enemies.” The Emperor admitted. “In that case, you will need to do what you can to protect my family.”
“I will be with him, Go. None will get to him save through Teeth and I.” Kalb declared. Teeth barked at his side, eyeing me as if daring me to dispute that fact.
While that would have once comforted me, I knew that even Kalb was not invincible. He could not outrun arrows any more than Fire and Mongrel had been able to, and they had been much younger than him, if less powerful.
I could see that there was nothing I could say to change their minds, so I would do what I could. “Then I will meet with the other dogs in the palace. I will arrange the protection of your family.”
“Watch over them, Captain.” The Emperor bid me.
“Of course. I shall not fail you in this. I shall guard them as if they were my own.” I bowed deeply.
The Emperor nodded, looking once more at his book. He eyed it, and then extended it out toward me. “Take it.”
“It is a copy of my family’s history.” He explained. “I think it will help you to better understand us.”
Dog and I stepped forward to receive the book. There was a wistful look about the Emperor’s eyes that I didn’t fully understand.
“In another time, Captain Goren…” The Emperor did not finish the thought.
Dog, ever the empathetic one, seemed to sense the Emperor’s need for comfort. He pressed his nose against our nation’s leader. The Emperor smiled, gave Dog a pet about the head and a gentle tug on his jowls. Dog’s tailed thumped against me.
“I will not fail you.” I repeated, holding the volume against my chest and bowing a second time.
“Travel safely.” I bid them.
The Emperor said no more, so Dog and I took our leave. We had dogs to meet with.
Since the attempt on Neema’s life, Dog and I had rarely left the royal residence, other than for occasional meals or to bathe and change clothes, and I made sure to never do that on any regular schedule. I even slept in odd shifts, sometimes during the day, other times during the night or napping for short periods here and there. Between Dog and I, one of us was always alert.
A cry from the second floor made Dog’s ears perk up. I felt a tingle across my face, and I rose from my place on a bench on the main floor. Everything was quiet, and that was whey I’d heard the cry.
Dog and I took the steps two at a time. We came to a halt outside the doors to Nokomi’s room, panting and listening to the sounds within. We had no sooner arrived than the door cracked open just a sliver. Halina appeared in that sliver of light beyond the door.
“She’s fine.” Halina said tiredly. “She knew you’d come, but she’s fine.”
“We heard her cry out.” I said, putting my foot in the door so she could not close it.
“Your ears are too sharp, Captain. You can go back to sleep. It was just a bad dream.”
I opened my mouth to protest, but I heard Nokomi inside the room call out, “Let him in, Halina.”
Halina looked as if she might argue, but she sighed and stepped aside. She crossed her arms over her chest and waited for Dog and I to pass, so she could close the door behind us.
I’d never been in Nokomi’s chambers before, not really. The room on the other side of the door was a sitting area. A pair of benches sat beside a small table for taking tea, and tapestries hung upon the walls. It was otherwise an unremarkable room.
Curtains divided that from a short hallway, which split off into a dressing room to the right and a smaller room to the left that smelled of clothing: silks, linens, and rich fabrics. At the end of that short hallway was a larger room, much larger than the others. I could feel a cool draft of evening air flowing from that way, so I knew that it must open onto the balcony. That would be her sleeping chamber.
As I entered that room, I noticed Lila getting up to wander sleepily toward the front entry. She yawned tiredly, not even bothering to acknowledge my presence as she passed by to join Halina.
I smiled at that. I could appreciate one who took to sleep so deeply, not that I ever could. Dog and I had been raised on the streets, where you always slept with one eye open, never fully asleep. Like wild animals, we’d had to be ready to run away or defend ourselves at a moment’s notice, and those habits had never really gone away. If anything, they suited the soldier’s life we’d found ourselves in quite well.
I looked around the large room, which was dominated by a large round mattress that was shrouded in netting to keep out biting insects or moths that might be drawn to the candle light that offered the barest amount of light in the corners of the room and near the balcony entrance.
Nokomi shifted inside the netted area, coming into a sitting position with her arms wrapped around her knees. I tilted my head, focusing on her through the netting. I could make out her white sleeping gown again, a strong contrast with her dark hair, and I could see the faintest hint of her eyes.
“Come here.” She bid me.
I cast a glance over my shoulder, noticing Halina watching me still. She frowned at me from the doorway, but said nothing. Dog needed no further invitation. He started forward, searching for a gap between the sheets of netting.
“Over there.” Nokomi said, flicking a spark from her fingertips in the direction of the nearest opening.
I watched the spark float on the air and die on the way to the netting, as did Dog. When it was gone, we moved to the opening, and I pulled it open for Dog. He went in immediately, padding across the wide expanse of mattress toward Nokomi, but I hesitated.
“Take off your boots.” She suggested.
I did that, and crawled in to follow Dog, who’d settled in next to her. She’d already draped an arm companionably over him, and he watched me with a gloating expression on his face as he enjoyed her attention.
“Wicked beast.” I grumbled, working my way across to them.
The mattress was quite large, and I found three distinct impressions upon it, with Nokomi settled in the center one. Halina and Lila clearly slept beside the princess, creating a protective barrier around her while she slept. Those who would seek her for any purpose while she slept would have to get passed the handmaidens.
It brought to mind the heaps of boys and dogs that had slept beside each other during my days in the Kennel. I couldn’t count the number of times I’d woken up to find a foot, tail, or slobbery face right next to mine. Not to mention, Dog and I had used each other as pillows since before I knew how to talk.
I settled in near Nokomi with only Dog between us. I watched her in the low light. Her eyes looked wide and alert.
“What was that spark before? Was that your fire?” She’d threatened to use it a few times in my presence, but I’d never actually seen it used.
I remembered the cut on her hand from the first time we’d met. She’d slit her palm and had been prepared to use her heartfire to burn the desert cat that had attacked. She hadn’t needed to, since Dog and I had dispatched it, but that cut had leaked her blood into the wound on my forehead, and we’d been bonded ever since.
Again, on the second time we’d met, she’d been ready to spill her blood to fight Kalb for our freedom. She’d almost been willing to turn against him with her blood magic, but it hadn’t come to that. Instead, we’d gone off to the Kennel to be trained to serve in her father’s special army, as part of the Emperor’s Dogs.
Nokomi flicked her fingers again, and a spark floated between us, vanishing just short of the tip of my nose. I saw her grinning madly, her face illuminated by the mote of firelight until it faded.
“I keep one fingernail sharp, so I can pierce the tip of my finger. I can flick that tiny drop of blood and create a spark that can light a candle.” She explained.
“Or lead a Dog and an army captain to your bedside.” I observed.
“Or that.” She agreed.
When she grew silent, I asked the question that hung between us unspoken, “Talk to me. What are these dreams that wake you?”
She hesitated at first, but this was why she’d let me in here. She wanted to tell me, even though I could sense the battle inside her. I knew that she must be breaking some unspoken rule to speak of what was on her mind.
“It’s not dreams.”
“Then what is it?”
“It’s the heartfire, Go. It’s growing stronger. I can feel it burning brighter in my veins.”
“Because of your brother’s birth?” It had only been a week since the birth. Could that much have changed already?
She shook her head, her fragrant hair shaking unbound about her shoulders. “No, it’s different than that.”
She pursed her lips, trying to decide how to explain it. “Heartfire is finite. There is only so much of it to go around, or at least that is how I’ve always understood it. Those of us who have it must share it with others in our bloodline, with each of us getting a share dependent on how close we are to the original source. Among our people, my father’s line is strongest with the greatest share. My uncles, aunts, cousins, and more distant relatives receive smaller shares.”
“Like a jug of water shared into different sizes of cups.” I surmised.
She nodded. “Exactly, so with Shapur’s birth, there should be less of it to go around, not more.”
“Because his would be another cup, and being your father’s son, it should be a big cup, and you’re saying that is not true? You feel more fire within you than before? What does that mean?”
“It means that somewhere, members of our family or those bonded to our family are dying.”
My blood ran cold, and my jaw tightened. “Where? Who?”
“I don’t know. That’s what scares me.”
Dog whined between us, and we broke eye contact to focus on the animal for a moment.
“I’m not sure what I can do about this. Your father would know best, and Kalb has reach across this kingdom. He could see to it that everyone is protected. I can’t do anything beyond what I am doing here.”
“I know.” She said softly. Clearly she did not blame me, but she shuddered once more.
“What is it?”
“It’s happening again!” She whimpered. Her skin flushed hot and her eyes glowed warmly. A sweat broke out across her face and neck as she took a greater share of the heartfire magic into herself.
“Someone is hunting your kind.” I surmised. “They want that power to themselves.”
She nodded, biting her lip. “That was stronger, closer. It must have been a cousin or someone stronger. I have never felt that strong of a change before. Go, it has to be murder! When one of our kind slips into death of old age or illness, their power has already faded in the days leading up to their death, so it is a gentle, gradual transition of their power into the collective we share. This is sudden, sharp.”
I suspected Navid immediately, but did not understand his full intent. “If your magic is stronger, so then is that of your father, mother, your sister, and your brother, right? Your uncle as well?”
“Yes, everyone who is left alive will have a greater share of the heartfire. I’m sure that father has felt the change tonight.”
“And what if there was only one of you left?” I asked.
“Why he, or she, would be practically bursting at the seams with heartfire. Their blood magic would be incredibly potent, but the magic does not like that. It would search for a way out. It would hope to spread into connections, as it has with you and I, or into offspring, as it has with Shapur.”
My forehead tingled with our shared bond. “All I can do is protect you.”
She reached across Dog and took my hand in hers. It was feverishly hot, but I did not flinch away. “Stay then. Don’t leave me.”
I glanced back at the doorway, where Halina waited, knife ever at the ready, knowing her. Lila had vanished, and I could easily imagine her sleeping on a bench in the entry or on a settee in the changing room.
A squeeze of my hand brought my attention back to Nokomi. She breathed heavily, beads of perspiration standing out on her forehead. My eyes tracked one as it ran down the back of her jaw, just in front of her ear, riding her skin down to the hollow of her neck, where the fabric of her sleeping gown absorbed it.
She reclined on one side, keeping Dog beside her. I followed her lead, not breaking eye contact or letting her hand go as I sank into the perfumed bed linens. Dog’s wet nose rubbed against my forearm.
“It’s my Uncle Navid, isn’t it?” Nokomi whispered past Dog to me in the near darkness.
“Kalb and I think so.” I admitted. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to share my suspicions with her, but I was loyal to her first and foremost.
Her eyes closed, and she went flat onto her back and breathed out heavily, as if it were a relief to finally be told the truth.
“Your uncle is trying to blame the Kingdom of Arven, saying this is retribution for his taking if Saluud, but it doesn’t all fit. I’m not sure if your father wants to believe it, one way or the other.”
She weighed the two options bitterly. “So it’s either outright war or betrayal.”
“What will we do?” She asked.
“Survive. What else can we do?”
“Can you actually keep us safe from him, if it is him?” She asked. “He controls a good part of the army. There are those who are loyal to him within the palace as well.”
I wasn’t going to lie to her. It was a tall order to save them all. “I will look to your safety first, Nokomi. Then I’ll try to save your mother, brother, and sister.”
“Kalb can protect him. You know that he would ask me to see to his family before I thought of him anyway. I know how he thinks, what his priorities are.”
“If this happens, the palace won’t be safe.”
I nodded. “I know, but there are some that I trust, very few, but there are some I could trust to keep us safe.”
“I’ve never left my home before.” She sounded like a little girl in that moment, one unsure of her future.
“Let’s hope you never have to.” I squeezed her hand reassuringly.
A moment later, she shuddered again with the loss of another family member somewhere across the kingdom and the subsequent gain of more heartfire that accompanied it.
“I’m afraid.” She whispered.
Dog whined, getting up to stare out past the netting toward the night sky. I knew there was nothing there, but he was not one to sit around when a member of the pack was ill at ease. He let himself out of the netting and sat guard, doing his duty.
Nokomi crawled over beside me, bridging the short distance. Our eyes met, mine glowing yellow in the reflection I saw within hers, which glowed red. She pulled her hair back behind her shoulders and settled onto my shoulder, pillowing herself upon me.
My chin rested upon the top of her head, and I breathed in the scent of her hair, accented with the sweat of fear and the potent musk of fire magic that burned through her. Despite what she was going through, I felt more at ease than I could ever remember. I felt a momentary bit of guilt, but let it go. If this was the comfort she required, I would give it.
Somehow, sleep found us both. We rested well, knowing that Dog would watch over us both.
Death was familiar to me. Birth, not so much. What did I know of such things?
I knew how to guard, to hunt, and to protect. That was what I had been trained for. It was what my orders required of me. Since the day I’d foiled the assassination attempt on princess Neema, I’d been a constant fixture in the royal residence, a shadow haunting the halls with Dog at my side. We’d had no specific directions other than to be alert and on watch for similar attempts. They’d trusted us to uncover any further attacks in whatever form they might take.
So it was that we were stalking the halls of the ground floor of the residence when we felt an undercurrent of excitement running through the royal. Servants were rushing about, chattering about something. Their was an infectiousness about their excitement, and I found that Dog and I were getting carried away with their emotions.
As we eavesdropped to figure out what was going on, Princess Neema came to find us. She swept into the room, all long-legged grace and seriousness in a long dress that dragged the floor in her wake. Her straight hair fell in a curtain around her face, and her eyes were alert, full of excitement.
“Captain Goren!” She called over, placing one hand on her hip while the other fell at her side. She almost looked at ease around us, but Dog and I could see the way her fingertips tugged nervously at the fabric of her dress.
“Princess.” I stepped over to her and bowed slightly, keeping my eyes on her. “There is quite a disturbance this morning…”
“The baby is coming!” She said, grinning widely.
“Your mother is?”
She nodded excitedly. “It’s finally time.”
That made sense. It certainly explained much of the talk I was hearing. “What would you have of me? How might I help?”
“You’re not a midwife are you?” She asked suddenly.
I shook my head, frowning. “No.”
She laughed. “Captain Goren, there is nothing you can do for my mother. The baby will come without any help from you or I.”
“I know that.” I said softly. I hadn’t meant to imply that I would deliver the child myself, obviously. I waited for her to say more.
“You can wait on the second floor. Father wants you watching the stairwells in case there is another attempt while he is occupied with the arrival of his child.”
“Good. I can do that.” I preferred to be kept busy anyhow.
“Come with me then.” She turned on her heel, she strode off toward where I knew the stairs to be.
I watched her body language as she strode purposefully across the residence. She was making a strong attempt to look confident, but there was a tenseness in her stride that showed how little she liked having a creature like me at her back, where she couldn’t see me.
Dog and I sped up, putting ourselves beside her, if a half-step behind on account of her higher status. “You have nothing to fear from us.” I whispered to her, just loud enough to be heard.
Her step faltered, and then she stopped. Her hand drifted to her face, pulling a lock of hair away from her cheek. Then she took a breath and turned toward us. “I know that you think that.”
Dog shifted at my feet, staring up at her. “There is no think about it, princess. It is the truth.” I said firmly.
Her sharp eyes searched our face for any hint of falsehood. There were no lies in us, not about this, so she found nothing. There was a slight shift in her expression, that of acceptance. “I know that you saved us the other day, but your presence here is something that is blended with lies, lies about who and what you are and why you are here.”
“I have done nothing but the duties your father and mother have asked of me.” I replied.
“Nokomi trusts you implicitly, my father believes in your abilities to keep us safe, and my mother has also asked you to watch over us. I am thankful for that, but we are not friends, Captain Goren, and my trust is something given slowly, something to be earned.”
I smiled toothily. “I understand completely, princess.”
“Furthermore,” she continued, “I believe that you are a dangerous person. Like an unsheathed blade, you are something to be watched and handled with care. I fear that I will never be completely at ease around one such as you.”
Dog let out a whine at hearing this description of us. His tongue lolled out and he moved to press his muzzle against the princess’ hand.
Frowning at the two of us, she pulled her hand back. Then she eyed Dog. “Your innocent act does not fool me, Dog. You are every bit as dangerous as he is, perhaps more.” She nodded toward me and gave me a flash of her eyes.
I found myself appreciating her forwardness. She had the family’s strength in her character, and I liked it. Dog whined and tried a second time to press a nose to her hand. “Stop, Dog. You’re embarrassing yourself.”
The princess snorted at that, and, as if to prove me wrong, she gave Dog the smallest and most chaste pat on the top of the head I’d ever seen. Dog gave a little growl and nosed at her hand for more, and she obliged, cracking the slightest of smiles.
“I don’t even like dogs.” She declared, giving Dog one last scratch on the jaw before drawing her hand back at last.
“It appears that way.” I agreed, doing my best not to smile.
“Come on then.” The princess ordered, heading once more for the stairs.
I followed behind her, observing the change in architecture and design as we arrived on the second floor. The ground floor was very open, with many pillars supporting the upper floors of the residence, and wide expanses of floor between them. Certainly, there were meeting rooms and chambers along the periphery of the ground floor, but the general feel of the ground floor was one of openness. In contrast, the second floor was more closed down, more intimate feeling, even if the ceilings grew taller as we exited the grand staircase. I stood at the top for a moment, looking this way and that, trying to get a mental picture of the layout.
“This is your first time upstairs, I take it?” Neema asked.
I shook my head. “Second.”
She stared at me in surprise. She’d noticed my unfamiliarity with this part of the residence. “Then why?”
I leaned in conspiratorially and smiled. “Last time I came in through your sister’s balcony, but I never made it out of her room.”
She stared at me wide-eyed, blushing fiercely. “That is most improprietous.”
I shrugged, wondering what she thought of her sister’s dealings with me now. “Don’t worry. We only talked. Then Dog and I left. Besides, Halina wouldn’t have let anything happen.”
“Oh.” She went silent, frowning.
Dog made a noise that got Neema moving once more. She cast a sideways glance at us more than once as we walked. I smiled to myself and looked around as we went.
Gold gilt had been worked into the pillars that held up this floor of the residence, worked into veins that shimmered in the marble. A major hallway crossed from the stairwell to another directly opposite, more than a good stone’s throw away. A similar, perpendicular hallway crossed directly through the middle, making a full X across the entire floor that effectively divided the second floor into quadrants.
Carpeted runners in a deep red ran up and down several of the smaller, side hallways, offering quieter passage to the chambers that were most likely occupied by the royal family and their closest servants. Up and down the halls, I could see guards stationed at regular intervals, and a bevy of servants hurried back and forth with both speed and quietness.
My nose was hit with a tang of sweat, pain, and exertion. There was a hint of blood in the air, too, and the odd scent of the Empress’ birth water. I’d been around the births of horses and dogs, so I knew what it was, but this was the first time I’d been so close to a human birth.
“She’s close.” I said, gauging how close the child was by the muffled cries from a nearby room.
Neema gave me another look. She wasn’t used to someone with such sharp senses, and it was disquieting for her to be witness to my abilities. She might understand what I was, but she would likely never be fully comfortable with me.
“This way.” She said, tearing her eyes away from me.
She hurried now, heading down a side hallway near the intersection of the two major hallways. I followed easily, Dog trotting alongside me. It was there that we came upon Princess Nokomi waiting outside a set of doors with her father and General Navid.
I almost growled upon seeing the general here, but no matter my opinion of the man, he was still part of the royal family. He appeared to be waiting with the Emperor to congratulate him on the newest addition of the family. There was almost a brotherly air between the two, but there was a cloud of tension hanging over that affection nonetheless.
Nokomi’s eyes lifted to meet mine, and she broke into a smile. She stood to greet me warmly, “Captain Goren! We all feel safer with you here.”
She all but glided across the floor to my side. As always, she was a vision. Her hair was coiffed elegantly, gathered to one side. Her dress was brilliant teal, with a white ribbon wrapped multiple times around her middle, accentuating her small waist.
Dog’s tail thumped happily at her greeting. “Princess Nokomi.” I bowed politely.
I carefully watched Navid’s reaction. The man observed with a surprisingly neutral expression. This was a man who could hide his thoughts very well, if he cared to. He met my gaze with a knowing look, as if he understood everything he needed to about me now.
Had Nokomi’s familiar greeting given him some hint to our ties? Did he know about that? Or had Dog’s happiness at seeing Nokomi betrayed our closeness? Would he use that against us? I couldn’t be sure.
Nokomi turned to her sister. “The baby is near. Mother wanted us both to go in to help her.”
“Then we must not keep her waiting. Let us go greet our sibling.” Princess Neema inclined her head slightly to me. “Captain.”
“Princess.” I bowed again.
“Could you keep my uncle and my father company while we wait, Captain Goren?” Nokomi asked, smiling in a way that would have lit up anyone’s day.
“Certainly.” I grinned back at her.
She winked and took her older sister’s hand, moving toward the doors to the Empress’ chambers. They knocked twice, and a woman in nurse’s garb, complete with a bonnet and an apron, opened the door. They whispered among themselves and then the princesses were let in. The nurse cast a suspicious gaze at the men in the hall, and then closed the door. A cry from the inner rooms punctuated the door closing.
“The mysteries of women.” Navid said with a chuckle, trying to add some levity.
Emperor Baraz smiled politely, but did not laugh. His mind was clearly on his wife’s ordeal, and he waited with clenched fists and a tight jaw. He met my eyes, as if wondering if I knew what he was going through.
I could not, of course, know what it felt like to be him, having no children of my own. I knew the anxiousness that sat on one’s mind and heart before a mission. I’d passed many sleepless nights before ordering friends and companions to their deaths on raids we’d been ordered to carry out. There was an inevitability and helplessness to that, which I felt related to what the Emperor might be feeling.
There was nothing he could do to ease his wife’s pain. She simply had to endure this, pushing until it passed. But the Empress was a strong woman, a mother to two strong-willed daughters already, and I knew she would make it through this.
I wondered how it would be for the Emperor to have a son after so long. And I wondered how Navid would feel to be put one more step away from the throne on account of a crying babe. I found myself getting more tense.
“Emperor, I thought I might walk the halls once?” I suggested. After all, it was what I’d been asked here for, even if it seemed as though he really just wanted another witness to keep his brother on his best behavior.
I was surprised that Kalb was not here. Then again, despite their close ties, he was not family. Not that I was, but Kalb was also open about his distrust of Navid.
The Emperor nodded, waving his hand to dismiss me to do that. His jaw clenched tighter as another cry came from the chambers within, the agonies of birth carrying through the walls.
I took off to patrol those main halls with Dog at my heels. I hadn’t realized how fast I was moving until I passed a group of maidservants going the same way as me. They were carrying steaming water and fresh linens, clearly heading toward the Empress’ birthing suite. Dog and I slowed down, gave them a passing sniff, and headed to what we figured to be the back wall of the birthing suite after making a sweep of the halls.
Through the walls, I could hear the Empress’ cries as she pushed. It went on for some time, her agonized cries and the tired exhaustion she pushed through until her child came into the world. It took some time, but I could hear the sobs of relief from the tired mother and the mewling cries of the newborn.
I took that as a sign and rushed back down toward where the Emperor and his brother waited, pausing only to check the halls once more on my way. I found a nurse greeting the Emperor with the news as I approached.
Nokomi came out of the room then. There was a sheen of perspiration on her face. From the expression on her face, I knew that she’d found it difficult to watch someone she loved in pain, especially when she knew that one day she would face the same. Still, there was a glow about her face, for she’d just basked in the presence of her newborn sibling.
Dog and I walked up to deliver our report. “Sir, everything looks clear. Congratulations are in order, I understand.”
The Emperor nodded and made a decision. I could see it in his eyes. “Captain. Would you accompany us inside?”
Navid’s eyebrow rose, and he gave his brother a questioning look. “Brother?”
The Emperor smiled. “You have to meet the newest member of the family you are sworn to protect.”
“It would be a great honor, Sir.” I lowered my eyes and put my arms at my side, where Dog sat patiently.
“Come then, Captain.” He waved me along, pushing me into the room ahead of himself.
The nurse protested. “You can’t bring an animal in here!”
The Emperor barked a laugh. “I trust that Dog every bit as much as you, woman. That ‘animal’ saved the princess’ life the other day.”
“Sire.” The nurse bowed her head and backed away, ashamed that she had raised her voice in the presence of the Emperor.
Dog and I entered the outer sitting room, which was filled with servants bundling up bloodied linens and carrying away tubs of water that had been used in the birthing and the cleanup afterward.
We let the Emperor and his brother pass us then. It was only fitting that they go into the birthing room first. Nokomi fell in beside us. It was good to have her at our side as we entered the presence of the Empress, now a three-time mother.
The Empress was arrayed on a large round bed, surrounded in white silks. Her face was flushed with exhaustion and effort. Her sweaty hair clung to her neck and forehead, but she glowed with new motherhood. Her clothes had been changed, so she was now swathed in glowing white that reminded me of Nokomi’s outfit the first day I’d met her years ago.
A small, pink babe was clutched against her chest. Its dark hair was plastered to its head, still wet from birthing and the gentle bathing it’d had after its birth. It was tiny and helpless looking, but it glowed with an inner fire that pulsed with each strong heartbeat.
“Emperor, my husband, meet your new son.” The Empress announced proudly. She had eyes only for Baraz.
The Emperor swept to her side, kneeling beside her on the bed to reach out for his child. The Empress pulled the babe from her breast, though he protested angrily at being removed from the comfort of his mother and feeding. As she handed the baby over to his father, the Empress covered herself quickly.
Emperor Baraz stared at his child, a worshipful look filling his face. The baby cried out, opening his eyes just long enough for us to see the fire glowing inside them.
“My son.” The Emperor said joyously, holding him up for us all to see. “He shall be known as Shapur, the first of his name.”
“Shapur.” The family echoed, even Navid, whose expression was carefully guarded.
Nokomi’s hand clutched at mine as we watched the Emperor climb into the bed beside his wife. Together, they held the baby that would take the throne one day, if only he lived long enough.
I changed clothes while I waited. The others smelled too much of beasts. I didn’t mind it, but the musk of the beast set many people ill at ease. So, I put on my cleanest military uniform, complete with all of its symbols of rank. There was no point trying to hide what I was any more. If I stood before the leaders of our people, it would be as the soldier they’d trained me to be.
Kalb arrived to escort me personally to the audience. Teeth was beside him, as always, but there was something different in the way the two of them carried themselves, as if they were distancing themselves from me. This was official business, and any familiarity we might have shared was gone, for the moment at least.
We walked in silence to the same audience chamber that General Navid had been welcomed in. Before we entered, Kalb turned his cloudy yellow eyes to me and said only one thing, “Be true to yourself and honest. I can say no more.”
I nodded, and waited for the doorman inside to call for me. Dog and I walked forward, entering through the enameled double doors that stood before us. We were announced as we proceeded into the room.
“Captain Goren and his dog.” A voice called out.
I grunted and turned to the man, who was surprised by the sudden attention. I looked him up and down, noting his careful manner and stylish dress that were vastly different from my own. “He’s not ‘my dog.’ His name is ‘Dog.’”
“Uhh, yes. Captain Goren and Dog?” The man announced carefully.
I nodded, and then approached the front of the room, stopping at a respectful distance, about ten paces and three steps away from the Emperor and his advisors.
Kalb’s expression was unimpressed, but the Emperor seemed to understand the distinction I’d just demanded. Names and labels were important. The Empress was strangely absent, with General Navid taking her place at the left of the Emperor to balance out Kalb. Navid had traded his armor for more fitting and official garb. He was far more richly appointed than the Emperor, although he did not wear a crown, as his brother did.
“Revisit the details of the assassination attempt. Spare no detail.” The Emperor commanded. His eyes were flinty, and his body was a study of contained fury.
“Sir.” I bowed respectfully before beginning. “I was observing the interactions of the princesses with their suitors, as I have been commanded to do. I was performing my guard duties as expected, when Dog and I determined that one of the servers was not who he pretended to be.”
“What does that mean? How did you realize what his intents were or that he was not what he appeared to be?” Navid interrupted.
I noticed that he made no attempt to explain away the situation as a mistake. There was no talk of me attacking an innocent man, so at least we were all in agreement there.
“I smelled the poison on the food he was trying to serve princess Neema. I imagine that the tart berries would have hidden the flavor until it was too late.” I answered.
“You smelled the poison. Is this a normal part of your duties? Aside from being a captain in our armies, are you also a wine taster and food sniffer?” Navid laughed, but quieted when Baraz swung his gaze in his direction.
“Captain Goren is known for his abilities.” Kalb remarked.
“Oh? Which abilities? I’m just now getting to know the man, though he has appeared several times around the palace. It makes me wonder what all his duties are…”
The implication that I had spied on him was clear. I made no effort to hide what I’d done. Dog sniffed at my side, and I did the same. “You had cumin, garlic, and paprika on your lamb today, sir. You washed it down with red wine. You were served by a young woman wearing jasmine perfume. There is an awful lot of it on your neck and left shoulder, so I imagine that she sat beside you while you ate. And did she shovel your food into your mouth with a flat of bread cooked in oil?”
Navid stared at me, his mouth twisting into a frown. Kalb grinned.
“Enough. We understand just how acute your sense of smell is. Now get on with the details. Tell me of the assassin.” Emperor Baraz ordered.
I inclined my head once more and continued with my recollection. “There were two servers, and while they both wore the same clothing and generally looked similar, one went without gloves. It was a small detail that tipped us off, that with the smell of poison.”
“How well can you smell poisons?” Navid asked.
“Well enough. At least with those I’m familiar with.” I admitted.
“And how many are you familiar with?” The Emperor asked.
“Twenty to thirty types? Some were employed in missions along the borders, used in softening up forces or eliminating specific insurgents or key persons.” I answered.
Navid stared at me with newfound interest. “Aside from the gloves and smells, how did you know?”
I shook my head, unable to fully explain, but I did my best. It was in the details, the miniscule differences. “It was in his eagerness to get the princess to eat what he carried…”
The Emperor sat forward. “How so?”
“It is difficult to put in words, but I will try.” I glanced at Dog, who seemed to nod at me. “In the same way that I can tell if a man is being genuine to a woman, or if he is being polite because he must, or if he has more lust-driven motives, I could tell that this man had different motives for his actions. It was in the way he carried himself, the way he moved, the tone of his voice, the way his pupils contracted, and the excited smell upon his skin. It all combined to create a picture of one intending harm and delighting in doing it.”
“And what of these wounds upon the man?” Navid inquired. “He was hardly fit to speak by the time we gathered him up for questioning. It looked as if he’d been savaged by wild animals.”
I met the general’s gaze, letting my eyes go yellow. “I am what I am, and he deserved every wound on his body, more even. He did not need his arms to tell you his secrets.” I smiled toothily, and Dog stood at attention beside me, the hair on his back rising.
The general knew exactly what I was, and there was no sense hiding it any longer, not if he’d already started gathering more of my kind to his side. Let him know that at least two dogs guarded the royal family.
The Emperor’s fist banged on the arm of his throne then. He gritted his teeth and glared at Kalb, though it was not his fault. It was the anger of a man whose family had just been attacked, and he knew there was nothing he could have done about it. What I’d just described was beyond his ability to sense.
“They came after my daughter, Kalb. Always, they came for me before, but now the rules have changed, and they think to go after my daughters.”
“I know, Sire.” Kalb bowed his head.
The Emperor thrust himself up out of his chair, startling Navid beside him. The Emperor staggered down the few steps that held his chair, coming down to a level with me. He had a crazed look in his eyes, a look that promised he was going to do something uncharacteristic of him.
I wanted to take a step back, but I did not. I remained standing as he came forward and threw himself at my feet and wept. These were tears of anger, frustration, and relief. I looked over at Kalb, who looked away uncomfortably, and then at Navid, who stared at this momentary show of weakness with utter fascination.
“You have saved the life of my daughter. I am deeply in your debt.” The Emperor said, head bowed.
“You owe me nothing.” I responded quickly. “Neema is important to Nokomi.”
“You have no idea, Go.” The Emperor said, catching his breath and gritting his teeth.
I sank down to kneel in front of him. “I think I do. I understand the need to protect one’s pack.”
The Emperor reached out and clasped me about the shoulders, nodding. “You know then, but how I wish I could have been be there to rip the man to pieces, to tear him limb from limb.”
“I understand that desire, too. That was how I felt with Tiny. Someone had hurt one of mine, and that was why it had to be me to kill Drum. You afforded me that privilege, and I have not forgotten that, sir. That is why you owe me nothing.”
The Emperor smiled at that. “Know that we will find the source of these attacks, Go, and you will be there to watch me strike them down this time. I am not one to forgive such an attack. Not ever.”
“Brother, it occurs to me that this may be the beginning of Arven’s retribution. Have I erred so badly in judging them? Would they seek the death of an Emperor’s daughter as a trade-off for a few foot soldiers in a port city?” Navid wondered aloud.
“This is not the way of the Kingdom of Arven. It is not the sort of reprisal they would’ve chosen. They are merchants, not murderers.” Kalb protested.
Navid shook his head. “What are assassins but merchants of death? Does it not fit? Is the timing not curious?”
“No more curious than the timing of your arrival.” Kalb muttered.
Navid stood abruptly, reaching for his ceremonial sword. “What are you implying, Minister?”
Teeth stood up, growling at the general and looking every bit of his size. Kalb put a restraining hand on Teeth’s shoulder. “Was it unclear?”
“Choose your next words carefully, Minister. I am brother to the Emperor. You are merely a friend of the court that walks around with a big dog.” Navid scoffed, letting an inch of his sword slide from the scabbard.
“Teeth is a very big dog, and I wonder if your brother might find it worth the risk if there is even a small chance that the attacks on his family stopped. Would you risk that?” Kalb grinned toothily, and Teeth growled a bit louder.
The Emperor watched my face as I observed the exchange. I suddenly suspected that this was playing out as he’d planned it. I also realized that Kalb had just painted a much larger target on himself than he’d had before if the one behind these attacks truly was General Navid.
“Peace.” The Emperor said, but it was enough.
The Emperor looked at both of them, allowing no more words to pass between the two as he retook his place on the center chair. Navid’s sword settled back into its scabbard, though his hateful looks did not vanish. Kalb looked as if he’d come out ahead in the exchange, and Teeth sat back on his haunches, staring at the general.
“We will recall more of our dogs back to the city.” The Emperor announced. “We will hunt these assassins in their nests. They will not be spared.”
“As you wish.” Kalb bowed.
“And the Kingdom of Arven?” Navid asked.
“I will deal with them directly. Preparations will be made.” The Emperor replied coolly.
It wasn’t certain whether he believed that the Kingdom of Arven had any hand in the attack or not, but he was not one to let things go unsettled. Strangely, the smell coming off of General Navid was also one of satisfaction.
I was dismissed shortly after, sent back to my quarters until my orders arrived.
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.
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.
I couldn’t sleep. Dog tossed and turned restlessly beside me, a mirror of my own uneasiness. Meeting with Legs should have left me feeling happier, not more unsettled. I had enjoyed catching up with him, reflecting on the past, even the sadder parts of it. Yet, I couldn’t help thinking about the future. That was what had me worried.
I began pacing, ignoring Dog’s whine when I made it impossible for him to sleep. Even in the dark and quiet, Dog would not sleep much if I was up and moving. In the dark, he met my gaze, and we both decided to go for a walk.
It was deep in the night, and much was quiet. The noises from neighboring houses had died hours ago. There was nothing but the whisper of our feet upon the gravel. I’d switched to quieter shoes instead of boots, and Dog knew how to move quietly. He was a wild animal, born for stalking and hunting prey, and I was able to draw on those skills to move more silently than a normal person could.
The sky was nearly cloudless, other than a few grey tufts that tried in vain to obscure the moon. The moon’s light seemed to split into four beams that formed a cross spreading through the grey sky. Dawn was perhaps two hours away, and there was little in the way of light around the palace, other than a few candles in windows or fires at guard stations placed periodically around the walls.
As there was little in the way of light, there was very little activity in the palace as well. I knew there’d be cooks already getting up to prepare morning meals soon, servants getting clothes ready for their masters’ days, and guards patrolling. Otherwise, there was only the silence of the sleeping city. In an hour, more would be stirring, but for now, Dog and I had the grounds to ourselves.
We slipped from building to building, moving within the shadows. I kept my eyes from any light sources, so I could preserve my night vision, which was sharp, nearly as sharp as Dog’s own, especially when I let the beast take my eyes and things came in more clearly.
That was a trick I’d learned in the years since I’d been at the Kennel. I’d honed my abilities so that I could allow my animal side to take just parts of my body at a time. I didn’t have to go all out. Instead, I could let my fingertips grow into claws while otherwise appearing human. Or, I could let my eyes take Dog’s abilities. I’d even grown my teeth once or twice, just for effect. In the right lighting or situation, having fangs and sharp ears could do much to intimidate or confuse an enemy. Often, that was all the time one needed to send a blade into their guts or running across their throat. Morbid thoughts for morbid times.
I smiled and drifted across the grounds, wandering in a direction I did not first understand, but should have. We reached the wall of the private lake garden, and I did not hesitate there. Dog knew what I planned, and probably had known before I knew it myself. He was a dog, not given to confusing inner dialogues and self-deceptions, so he knew the truth of things and how to live in the moment.
I knelt down, allowing Dog to get a running start. He easily vaulted up off of my shoulders and cleared the wall. It was not much for me to get over it myself. I only needed a couple steps back to get enough momentum, and then I leaped to the top of the wall, dropping back down on the other side without pause. A man standing on top of at wall gains attention, even in the middle of the night.
Dog and I hugged the inside of the wall, clinging to the shadows. No one could have seen us, not unless they had senses as keen as our own, and there were very few people in the palace grounds like us. Our steps brought us silently and swiftly to the pavilion where we’d taken tea with Nokomi.
Dog sniffed at the cushions and chairs, catching hints of her scent more recent than the last we’d met with her. There were other familiar scents mixed in as well, mostly of Halina and Lila, but also of the Empress Anahita.
My nose twitched at the scent of a man. I frowned, taking another deep pull of the scent. I did not know this one. It was not from Kalb or the Emperor. Unbidden, my mind conjured images of suitors fawning over Nokomi, taking meals with her and engaging in flattering discourse. I growled low in my throat. Dog just looked at me, as if to ask me what I was going to do about it.
In that moment, I believe I took leave of my senses. Sometimes that’s all it takes, just a single decision in a moment of weakness or strength.
I felt a tingle on the back of my neck, and I turned. There were candles lit in the royal residence. On a balcony along the lower dome, I saw wispy curtains part and a figure in pale bedclothes emerge. Lit by moonlight and a pair of flames on standing candelabras, I could just make out who it was.
Dog and I made for the walls. I led the way until we were close, and he ran straight for me. I gave him a leg up, tossing him easily over the walls. This time, I didn’t even bother to get a running start. I let my nature go and used claws to dig into the walls, pulling myself upward with ease. I made the top of the wall in mere moments and stood there, carelessly unworried about anyone noticing me this time. No, I wanted to be noticed, if only by her.
The tingle on the back of my neck deepened. It rose into my scalp until all of my hair felt as if it were standing on end. The hair on my arms rose, too, goosebumps forming on my arms, even if I was not the least bit cold.
Across the distance, our eyes met. I knew she’s seen me. She stood and waited, neither waving me off or beckoning me. I didn’t care. Meeting her gaze was invitation enough. I vaulted down from the wall and hit the ground running.
A taller wall surrounded the residence, ringing in the rounded building and its four corner towers. This wall was crenelated, with arrow slots and murder holes. They made great handholds for one such as I. Dog had little more trouble than I did. His paws found these spots perfect for boosting himself up to the next foothold, and we topped the wall, landing on its walkway.
Guards were patrolling this wall, but they were no more aware of us than they were the night birds that sailed overhead. I smiled, crossed the few paces of walkway, and descended the inside of the wall. Once I was at the bottom, Dog fearlessly leaped down to me. I caught him and lowered him to the ground.
We waited for the guards to complete their circuit, hiding in the shadows at the base of a tower. Then, we crossed the courtyard and came to a stop beneath Nokomi’s balcony. She looked down at us, not in surprise, but amazement. A grin crossed her face when I signaled for her to remain quiet.
I looked back and forth, finding plenty of handholds for me, but none that would suit Dog. I could easily scale the vines growing on the trellis to either side of her balcony. They were terrible planning in terms of security, I thought, but it worked for me. Clearly, they expected the other levels of defense to be unbreachable, so they did not worry if a flowering vine offered someone access to the royal residence.
Dog looked at me expectantly, and I nodded. It was easily twice my height to the bottom of the balcony, and the railing was chest high. I took a deep breath and grabbed Dog, one hand at the hindquarters, the other steadying him under his chest. A gasp escaped Nokomi’s eyes as she realized what I was doing. She looked to protest, but I didn’t give her the chance.
Taking a couple steps back first, I surged forward, heaving Dog up like a javelin, tossing him with all of my might. His legs pawed at the air as he sailed up and over the rail. He landed with the skittering of claws across the tiled floor.
Nokomi’s eyes were wide, and she bit her lip to hold off a scream. Laughing silently, I ran to the wall, pushing up off of it with my feet and springing upward. I grasped the bottom of the balcony near her feet and pulled myself up. I reached the top of the railing and swung my legs over, dropping softly onto the other side next to her.
“Go!” She hissed, eyes so beautifully wide and angry. But, it was the anger of fear, fear that something could have happened to us.
I shrugged and Dog yipped excitedly. “He likes it.”
“Dogs were not meant to fly.”
“It was more of a glide.” I replied, illustrating that fact with an arching motion of my hand. “Like these squirrels I once saw in my travels. They can glide safely down from a tree, or go branch to branch. They’re really quite amazing.”
She stared at my incredulously, crossing her arms over her chest. “And did you really just risk death and injury to sneak onto the princess’ balcony in the middle of the night to tell me about squirrels?”
My eyes narrowed, focusing on her face, looking away from the candle light and straight into her warm, inviting eyes. Her breath hitched, and I could see the rapid thrum of her pulse in her neck and the rise and fall of her chest beneath the linen sleeping gown she wore.
“Maybe.” I grinned wolfishly, suddenly aware of the heady scent of her hair, unbound and casting its scent into the light breeze. I’d never seen it hanging loose before, and I found that I liked the sight of it as it surrounded her face and fell down her shoulders in dark waves. I inhaled, closing my eyes for a moment.
“You are so strange.” She whispered, hand seeking out mine. Her pulse pounded in her fingertips. “Yet, I feel like I understand you.” Dog’s wet muzzle found her other hand. “Both of you.”
I pressed the back of her hand to my cheek. “It is because we are pack. We have been since that day so long ago.”
“Our blood mixed.” She said, understanding. Her fingertips worked their way across my jaw. “It is the way of my people. We can join others to us, so we always know what they are doing. We can share their feelings and know them deeply. It is only done with our most trusted friends and advisors.”
“It is the same with Dog and I. We share senses and thoughts.”
“And you are sharing with me, also. My own nose is sharper than before. I’ve noticed smells I never could have before you and Dog arrived. My eyes are sharper as well. I can see farther and more clearly in the dark.”
That surprised me. I’d always been able to feel her, but I’d never thought that one without the Old Blood could share the benefits of our bond. I marveled over that revelation and the scent of her skin. I found my teeth gently scraping at the back of her knuckles.
“We are pack.” She whispered, biting the inside of her cheek as I explored her wrist.
“That’s why I had to come.” I murmured against the inside of her arm. “I could not sleep, and I was unable to stop thinking about you, about your uncle’s return, and all of what it meant. I fear for your safety, and I am across the grounds. I did not know where you rooms were or how to get to you if you were ever in danger.”
“You certainly found me.” She laughed softly.
“And other scents I found in the places you frequent... They disturbed me.”
She withdrew her hand. “What do you mean?”
I yearned to have her hand back, but it was clenched at her side. “There was the smell of another man down at the pavilion. It was not Kalb and not your father.”
She looked at me with genuine confusion.
“I wondered if it was a suitor? I thought I was to be told of all of those meetings, but I must not have been told of one?” The words spilled jealously from my tongue. Dog eyed me in warning.
“That must have been Dastan. Other than my father or guards, he is about the only other man that ever goes there.” She said, perhaps a bit coolly.
“Dastan?” I had not yet heard this name.
“My sister’s betrothed. Neema’s consort-to-be.” Nokomi explained.
I stared at her for a long moment. She averted her gaze, looking uncomfortable as I studied her features. Dogs will do that, too, and it’s a habit I’ve picked up from them. They are not afraid to stare at a person for a long while, if it holds their interest or if they perceive it as a threat. Normal people will usually break my gaze first. They are uncomfortable with more than a few seconds of unbroken eye contact.
“Your sister is to be married?” I asked.
She nodded, taking the slightest step away from me. She rested her elbows on the railing and resumed her gaze out at the moonlit lake beyond the walls. “The marriage agreement was just formalized before you arrived, but the news has not yet been released. It was going to be released soon, but then my Uncle Navid arrived, and it did not seem like the proper time for such an announcement.”
Dog sat patiently, waiting for me to smooth things over. Somehow, I’d gotten off track, and he knew it. I’d went from a tender moment to a family discussion, and I wasn’t sure how to get back.
“How do you feel about that? I’ve not yet met your sister. I wonder about her and this man she has chosen.”
“Chosen?” Nokomi sniffed and turned her eyes my way. “Chosen for her is closer to the truth, although they do seem to genuinely like each other. Dastan is a sweet and gentle man.” She looked away, pursing her lips and frowning.
“How lucky for her.” I didn’t know what else to say. Her description of Dastan painted him as an exact opposite of me. What was I, but a beast in a man’s guise? I doubted that I’d ever been sweet or gentle.
“My sister could do worse.” Nokomi agreed.
“Nokomi…” I started, but had no words. I put my hands on the railing beside her, remembering our meeting at the pavilion.
She smiled sadly at me, but she did not put her hand on top of mine this time. “I know.”
I didn’t know what she knew. I didn’t know what I knew. Dog was probably the only one of the three of us that knew what he knew and how he felt. Unfortunately, I did not have the clarity he did, or the time to make things clear.
I heard a whisper of feet, and turned quickly to find Halina yawning as she regarded the two of us. I heard another sleeping deeper in the room, likely Lila.
“Mistress?” Halina asked questioningly, as if I might be a threat.
I felt a pang at that, a small stab of the heart. I eyed the other girl, wishing she’d not appeared.
“It’s fine, Halina.” Nokomi said tiredly. “Captain Goren was just leaving. Could take him down the north stairs and see him out?”
“Yes, mistress.” She continued to stare at Dog and I, clearly wondering how we’d gotten in without notice.
I stared at Nokomi, trying to meet her eyes once more. Perhaps my eyes would relay my truth where words had failed me. She chose not to look up at me though, turning away instead and walking to Halina’s side.
I looked at the two of them dressed alike in their sleeping dresses, so similar they might be sisters, but so different. Halina’s straight hair fell like a curtain, where Nokomi’s had a wave to it, curling near her ears and along her forehead. They were only a few finger widths difference in height, and Nokomi had slightly wider shoulders and hips, making her look older than Halina, despite being of a similar age.
Growling, I snapped my fingers and Dog came to my side. Halina’s eyes grew wide as she realized what I was about to do, but couldn’t believe it. I put my left hand on the rail and threw myself over it, landing just a moment later on the ground.
I backed up and snapped my fingers once more. There came the skittering of nails on tile once more, a stifled cry of surprise from Halina, and then Dog came sailing over the railing. I took another step back, gauging Dog’s trajectory. I dipped my arms as I caught him, so as not to jar him too sharply.
His round ears perked up and his muzzle broke into what could only be described as a dog’s grin. I shook my head, keeping a laugh to myself. Once more, we cast our eyes back toward the balcony to where the two women had been joined by a third, Lila.
The three women watched us disappear with different expressions on their faces: Halina’s full of wonder, Lila’s full of sleepy curiosity as to what she’d missed, and Nokomi’s full of sadness and longing.
The sky was lightening, and I had no more time. I needed to be with her, but our duties were conspiring to keep us apart. How long, too, before her Uncle worked to keep us apart?
Dog and I faded into the night, working our way unseen through the gates as the guard changed. It was exhilarating to sneak around, but that was a poor balm on my aching heart.
The two of us cast off into a fitful sleep for an hour before dawn, and then we got up to be about our duty.
I could hear Legs and his dog approach. The scraping of boots and a dog’s toenails announced their arrival. I hurried to the door and let them in quickly, glancing around the pathways of our little village, but no one was watching. The dogs greeted each other while we clasped hands and clapped each other across the back.
In the hours since witnessing General Navid’s audience with the Emperor, I’d eagerly awaited this meeting. In my time fighting on the border to protect our kingdom’s interests, I rarely had opportunities to catch up with one of my old pack mates from the Kennel. We had a shared history that made us close, no matter what had happened since.
Legs removed his boots, placing them beside the door, and moved to join me at the small table I’d had set up in the middle of the floor. His dog settled in beside him, resting its muzzle on his lap. Dog circled the table once and then settled in between me and Leg’s dog.
“Just like the old days.” Legs remarked, eyeing the basket sitting in the middle of the table.
During our days at that special school, each day’s lessons had been followed by an evening meal with a basket of food that we shared amongst our pack. Each instructor had left special cloths in the basket, so you always knew if you’d seen Red, Blue, or Grey that day. Our performances in the different subjects they taught had resulted in different rewards. On a good day in class, there had been better treats in the basket. So, I’d purposely chosen a white cloth for this basket, seeing as how it had no attached meaning to it, and it would not be associated with any negative memories.
Our pack, Pack Panj, had been the fifth group at the school. We’d been the junior team, younger and less experienced than all of the others. Despite some initial successes, it had taken weeks of punishing, grueling lessons before we’d started to hold our own. Some of that had largely been due to my own nature, but much had been because of our collaborations with other packs, those willing to train us during off times.
We’d turned enemies into allies, growing in strength until we could consistently defeat our rival, Pack Chahar. In the end, those victories had cost one of our pack more than even I liked to admit. Pack Chahar’s leader, Drum, had taken out his frustrations and anger on Tiny. Tiny had been the smallest member of our team, and his dog had been even smaller, a tenacious handful of a dog. Drum’s beast of a dog, Bear, had killed Little Dog in a fit of rage, and the death of his dog had nearly killed Tiny as well.
The Emperor, witness to the murder of Little Dog, had allowed the packs to decide upon Drum’s sentence and me to carry it out. I’d ripped his throat out while half given to my beast. Somewhere between animal and man, I’d watched the blood flow from Drum’s ruined throat to color the sand. That death had been the final thing needed to change the Kennel.
We’d unified into a single pack: Pack Sefr. Kalb had overseen the restructuring of the school and its lessons according to our demands, and the Emperor got the army he’d desired. I’d trained dozens of kids and their dogs since that day, but that had been where it all started.
“All or nothing.” I whispered, a mantra to honor the fallen. Sefr meant zero, or nothing. We were all together, we of the Old Blood, or we would amount to nothing.
“All or nothing.” Legs echoed sadly, clearly recalling Tiny and Little Dog.
We dug into the basket, pulling out the smoked meat, dried apricots, and dark bread I’d procured for this meeting. A carafe of lemon water and two small cups sat beside it. We ate quietly, enjoying the simple flavors.
“Have you seen any of the others?” Legs asked as he finished the last bite of apricots.
I tried to recall when I’d last seen any of the faces from the Kennel and my days there. It felt like lifetimes ago. “I served with Killer and Scar when we put down the bandits near Gorla. The last time I saw Face was near Epim. He may still be stationed there. I’d also heard that Sardar and several of Pack Yek are together somewhere, but they’re working on guard duty. They’re not much for killing, but protecting is something they do well.”
Legs nodded, absorbing the news.
“And you?” I asked.
“I haven’t seen any of the others in a couple years. My last contact was with Fire and Mongrel. We were scouts together for several months. I was there when they died.” Legs admitted, playing with the fringe of the white cloth that hung from the basket.
“How did it happen?” I’d known of their deaths, but I wasn’t privy to such information. Someone hadn’t thought I needed to know.
“We were scouting an encampment near Uman. It was a trap. We fought and took several of them out before our backup arrived, but we’re not faster than arrows.” He bared his left arm to show a scar that must’ve hurt.
“Most of us aren’t faster than arrows anyway.” I knew he’d been hurt, but if anyone I’d ever met could dodge an arrow meant as a kill shot, it would be Legs.
Legs laughed, but quickly sobered. “Yeah, but I wasn’t about to leave them behind. Their dogs fell alongside them.”
“That was probably for the best.” I said softly.
“I know.” He agreed. “Have you heard anything from Tiny? Anything at all?”
Tiny had been given a chance to bond with the same dog that had killed his own, but he’d never been the same afterward. Bonding with Bear might have kept him alive, but they were both damaged creatures. It had been Sardar, the oldest boy from the Kennel, who’d told us about the re-bonding process. He’d also lived through a loss and bonded with a dog that would have died from the loss of a master. Together, they’d cobbled together a new existence, not better or worse than their original bonds, but different.
I eyed Legs for a moment, trying to decide how much he needed to know. I’d heard rumors, but I knew little more than what I’d known since Tiny had left the Kennel. “You know that Tiny left us, Legs. He headed out into the desert, last I heard. He spoke to me before he went. He was never going to be a soldier again. He couldn’t risk losing another dog, or he would have died for certain. He’d lost his will to fight and kill.”
“I wonder if he was the lucky one.” Legs sighed, playing with his dog’s muzzle. “He got out.”
“He did.” I agreed, though I did not envy what he had gone through to get out. And honestly, I wasn’t sure I wanted out.
I’d found that I actually enjoyed training new boys and dogs to grow their bonds, to reach for their own versions of the beasts that lurked in their natures. I may not have always agreed with what they were being used for, but I enjoyed the teaching. I also knew I would have fought for a dozen more years and killed a hundred men if that was what it would have taken to get back to Nokomi.
“But what of General Navid?” I asked. “How is it that he came to know of us and to select you for his honor guard?”
Legs’ long face darkened. “It was his mission that Fire and Mongrel died on. He was in the vanguard of the force that came to our rescue. We were fighting for our lives, and he saw that we were different. Normal men don’t fight like we do. He saw a bit of the beast in me. It was too late for him to see the others changed in battle.”
So he blamed Navid for their deaths, at least in part? I frowned at that, but had deeper worries. “And now he knows everything?”
Legs shook his head. “No. He questioned me at length about where I’d learned what I knew, how I’d trained, and how many more of us there were.”
“He isn’t the type to let such a thing go.”
“No, he didn’t. He was insistent, so I was vague, mentioning that I’d been trained with a small group of boys, and that he’d just witnessed most of their deaths. For a long time, I played it off as if we were just a special scout division, but he had seen too much.”
“He must have scoured the army for more boys with dogs like you.” I surmised.
“He did. He even found a few of his own in the cities we went through. Two of those that arrived today are like us, of the Old Blood, but they were never at the Kennel or one of the other schools.”
“Raw talent.” I appreciated that, but didn’t like what it would mean if they were honed and sharpened into the type of tools that Navid required.
Navid didn’t understand what we were, and he would not be able to work with our kind in the ways we needed. That’s why Kalb had overseen the school’s transition, and why I had assisted in redesigning the instruction. Like any animal, we had needs that had to be met, and it took one like him or I to make sure we were shown how to reach our full potential. Much in the way a dog can be trained to be loyal and protect a family, that same dog can also be turned into a dangerous killer if it is not raised right.
“Things are in motion, Legs. These are dangerous times, and General Navid looks to be trying to create a force loyal to him.”
Legs nodded in agreement. He’d witnessed some of these things firsthand. “Just let me know what I can do, Go.”
“Listen carefully to every word General Navid says.” I suggested. “Figure out what he is and is not saying, and report back to me when you can. Be discrete, and understand that our true loyalty is to the Emperor and not to his brother.”
“And to Pack Sefr.” Legs smiled, patting his dog’s head.
“Pack Sefr.” I nodded, but I knew where my true loyalty was, and I wondered what she was doing at that moment.
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.
If I thought that those moments with Nokomi would quickly lead to more, I was wrong. At least, there were no more invitations during the rest of the week or the next, not even over the weekends. Perhaps my novelty had worn off? I’d seen Halina once or twice, possibly following me, but she maintained her distance, and I was careful to give no indication that I knew she was following me.
Instead, Dog and I worked the palace grounds, sometimes as a soldier with a dog, other times as a scribe without. Dog made it harder to go unnoticed, so we practiced separation, with him hiding where he could, sitting in wait in an empty room or an unoccupied corner of this garden or that one. Even with some separation, we could still feel one another, and my more acute senses did not fade as long as I kept some part of my mind focused on our bond. Even if we had been separated by enough distance to affect our bond, my senses and reflexes were still far beyond those of a normal human.
We worked and learned until the weekend, which brought to mind the market days from my childhood, when I’d worked for Adish. He’d given me my week’s pay on the sixth day of the week, allowing me to spend my money as I pleased on the end days of the week, days seven and eight. I’d learned the value of money, ate some delicious grilled rat, and explored the shops with Dog.
How I longed to go back into the city and wander the labyrinth of tents, booths, and stalls. It was a simple pleasure to wander among so many sights, sounds and smells. There was some small, mundane version of the market put on in the palace courtyard for the sake of the officials and palace staff who could not bother to go to the markets or the Grand Bazaar, but it was such a pale imitation that I cared little to explore it, except to study the people, and even that I cared little for.
Instead, Dog and I spent our second weekend reporting our findings to Kalb, who similarly shunned such gatherings, even more so as he aged. I returned to his offices, as before, and we spoke at length.
“I understand you took tea with the princess the week past.” Kalb remarked casually, but there was more than a hint of accusation in his tone.
I shrugged. That was not something I would deny, especially when he already knew the truth. “I will not refuse a summons.”
“Nor should you.” Kalb agreed, but he still eyed me with suspicion.
I smiled affably and took a direct tactic. “What is it that you really want to say, Kalb?”
“I understand the allure she must hold for you. You are bonded, and you are both so young and idealistic… and she is beautiful.” He watched me for a reaction.
I said nothing, allowing him to continue.
Kalb frowned at me, and Teeth shifted uneasily, feeling Kalb’s discomfort at the subject being discussed. “You do realize she is meant for another, right?”
“Yes. It has been explained to me at least twice.”
“And that means that no matter how close you get to her, no matter how you feel about her, you will never be the one for her. Even if you somehow managed to capture her heart, her body and her position as princess – those would belong to another.”
I flashed my teeth at him. Dog growled at the truth being offered so plainly to us. Kalb may say what he wanted, but I knew how her hand upon mine had felt.
“See? You have thought of it. I know that the Empress requested that you observe her interactions with suitors, several of which have just arrived. She will become the wife of another, and you will have to smile and guard her even as she marries another man, bears his children, and has a family without you.”
“Why are you saying all of this?” I hissed.
“Because you need to understand where you stand in this, foolish boy. It gives me no pleasure, but do you think I cannot see how you look at her?” He shook his head sadly. “It is natural at your age to feel such things. Your bond with her makes it even harder. You feel more of her than you should. Women are supposed to be mysterious – that is their nature – but part of her soul will always be bared to you, because of that bond you share. Yet, even with that bond, you two can never be together.”
“It must have been easier for you then to be bonded to the Emperor then, and not the Empress.” I replied sharply. “How would that have been for you?”
“I don’t know. It never happened, and I am happy that it never did, because I never had to deal with that test.” He wasn’t going to worry about hypotheticals. He’d lived too long a life to worry about such things.
“But you never became anything more than his guard and his minister. What of your life, Kalb? You have gifts and talents, the things granted by your Old Blood nature. Why was that never passed on to children? Couldn’t your own offspring serve the Emperor? Why not indenture your bloodline in perpetuity? How has he not demanded that of you?”
“Who is to say what I have done?” He demanded, a true look of anger upon his bearded face. “What do you know of my life, Go? Other than the few weeks we’ve spent together over these years, what do you know? I may have taught you all I know of being a beast, but what have you really learned of me?”
I stared at him, shocked. I’d never considered him as a father. Dog stirred at my side, looking at Kalb with new consideration. “And do you have children, Kalb?”
“My life is my own. It is of no concern of yours.” It sounded like a confirmation, even if he wouldn’t say it.
“And mine? What is my life to be? And what if she decides that she wants me as more than a guardian?” I asked.
It was a hope and a dream. I’d watched my fellow soldiers, dogs and boys like me, as they’d interacted with the women we’d come across in our tours across the land. I’d understood what they did and how they acted, but it had never been for me. Dog and I had always been apart, not matter how close we seemed to our peers at meals and on the battlefields. There was something that kept us separate, and that something was Nokomi. I realized that I’d always been waiting for her. I’d never be able to give myself to another, not while I was bonded to her.
Kalb shook his head sadly, feeling pity for one as naïve as myself. “A princess is a bargaining chip in a kingdom, Go. Her life is no more her own than yours is. She is not her own to give to anyone. A touch, a stolen kiss… no more could come of such things, nothing more than pain.”
“There is more. We could be more.”
“But you won’t.” He insisted.
“Would you stand in our way if that was what she wanted?” How that would test his loyalties. Even if he’d softened in his old age, would he ever defy the Emperor’s wishes for his daughter?
“Would you defy the Emperor, the Empress, the duty of a princess to her nation, and the entire kingdom by yourself?” Kalb asked, and something in his eyes feared my answer. He did not want to be put at odds with me. He needed me, and he didn’t want to have to fight me.
In that moment, I didn’t care. I could only be honest. “I would do whatever she asked of me. Anything. Everything. We are pack.”
Kalb snorted. “Foolish children. You don’t know what you say.”
“Maybe, but I know what I want, and that is for me to be what she wants me to be, whatever that is. I cannot deny her.”
Kalb leaned forward in his chair, eyes glowing yellow. “And if it is just a servant or guardian she wants you to be, will you be satisfied with that?”
I met his gaze defiantly, challenging him. “I will have to be. I live to serve her.” My words might have sounded sure, but the twist in my guts made me realize I would not be. We were pack, and I would do what I could for her, but even I had my limits.
“Then start serving her by being at the gates at dawn. Serve her by watching her uncle’s return.”
“General Navid is coming here?” I paused. I had not seen the man for many months, and I’d never met him in anything more than passing.
Kalb nodded. “He arrives tomorrow. He could have easily arrived today, but that man’s pride would not allow him to arrive on a market day. He will not have competition for his ‘triumphant’ return.”
“Triumphant? What has he triumphed over? We are not at war.”
“Are you certain?” Kalb gritted his teeth and tugged at Teeth’s scruff. Teeth grumped at him, but endured it. “You recall the map that the Emperor was looking over when you arrived?”
“It’s changed. Despite orders, General Navid took it upon himself to take Saluud from the Kingdom of Arven, along our eastern border. He claims it was to secure a better deep water port for our kingdom, so we no longer have to pay them for shipping rights, but it was more likely for his own glory. The Emperor is furious, and he has called him back.”
“The timing is curious, with the Empress pregnant.”
“Indeed.” Kalb stood, going to a wall where an older map was hung between two tapestries of dogs hunting. “That’s why I want you there. I need you to shadow him. Learn what you can of him.”
“You think he’s the one.”
Kalb turned to face me, his face grave and serious. “Never say that aloud again, even if you think you are only in my company. Things have a way of being heard when we least expect them to be.”
“Get out of here, and try not to let your passions put you at odds with your mission, Go.”
“That sounds strikingly like fatherly advice.” I remarked, unable to resist taunting him just a little.
“If you were my child, I would beat some sense into you.” There was a slight smile with that threat, but the flash in his eyes told me that he still thought he could beat me in a fight.
I wasn’t so sure. “Do you think you still could?” Dog nipped at my hand, as if to warn me to shut my mouth.
Teeth sat up and Kalb growled at me, with at least a hint of genuine anger. “Get out of here, and be at the gate tomorrow.”
Four days passed with surprising swiftness and also with agonizing slowness.
I used every spare moment to memorize the layout of the palace, which four days was not nearly enough time to do. Kalb’s signet ring allowed me access to most areas in the main palace, but there were so many outbuildings, small gardens, and walled-off areas that I just could not memorize them all so swiftly. Only time would fully allow me to acclimate myself to this new place. For now, I had to settle with knowing the major landmarks and areas, while learning the smaller details as I went.
Except, would I even have the time I needed? Kalb required me to know the ins and outs of the entire palace complex if I was to be able to sneak about and carry out his will. On the third day, he showed up at my small home in the middle of the night and made me draw the entire palace in accurate scale, at least what I could remember of it, from memory.
He did not let on if he was impressed or unimpressed by what I’d managed to learn thus far, although he smiled briefly at the fact that I’d found and labeled no less than twelve places to take a meal. What could I say? My nose and stomach drove me, and it was the memories of certain smells, sounds, and tastes that helped me remember what I knew so accurately. Each thing I associated with a sense became more concrete in my mind.
I knew that there was a specific type of jasmine incense used by one of the advisors in the western hallway. I knew which guard stations served the best food and the strongest liquor, by both taste and smell. There was a lovely assistant to the head scribe that always smelled like him, as well as sandalwood candles. One of the gardens had flowering lemon trees. I knew all these things and more, because our senses drove us.
Just before midday on the fourth day, Halina reappeared, once more alone at my door. I recognized her heartbeat, not her scent. This time, she smelled of almonds and cream. Her skin was particularly savory-smelling and supple-looking in the morning light.
“Do you like it?” She asked, and her eyes twinkled as my nose twitched at her new scent.
“It is pleasant.” I offered neutrally, while Dog sneezed beside me, his tail wagging happily. “What of Nokomi? Where is she?”
“Follow me.” That was all she said, but she sounded disappointed.
Dutifully, I followed with Dog at my side as she led into another walled section of the palace grounds that I’d not yet had a chance to explore. We walked to the north side of the royal residence, where we found another walled-in area that was nearly the side of the courtyard that the officials and folk of the palace enjoyed. This one was more exclusive, meant only for the royal family and those they entertained.
This private area was mostly dominated by a lake that was clearly man-made - its edges were so straight and even, and its depth was so uniform. A large pavilion sat on the southern shore, within eyesight of the two northern towers of the royal residence, as well as the tall turret atop the domes. There were two small islets in the lake, each not much bigger than the footprint of my modest little home. Each held a flowering tree, a few spindly shrubs, and a collection of water birds that spooked when Dog barked at them from the shore.
I stopped and stared, dumbfounded by the expanse of water that stood before me. Living in the alleys as a child, I’d never seen much more than a puddle after a rainstorm or a public fountain for drawing water. At the Kennel, I remember marveling over a bathing room that held a pool of water barely a fraction the size of this lake. Even in my travels as a soldier, I’d never beheld more than a watering hole in the desert or a narrow riverbed, more often running with mud than clear water. Yet here was a mass of water that was simply staggering to me.
Halina smiled to watch me stare. “Your mouth is hanging open. Have you never seen a lake before?”
I glanced at her, shaking my head before turning back to the lake. I knelt at its edge and put my hand into it. Dog sniffed at the water beside me and lapped at the warm water.
“Dogs will drink anything.” Halina remarked without judgement.
“Some people, too.” I slurped a handful of water just to get a rise out of her. My stomach was quite sturdy, and I had no fear of the water making me sick.
Halina winced at my choice of refreshment and nodded toward the pavilion on the edge of the lake. “Nokomi is waiting, with tea. It tastes much better than pond water.”
“Lead on.” I suggested, standing once more. Water was interesting, but Nokomi was much more interesting.
My eyes went to the pavilion, where I could make out Nokomi reclining on a bench beside a table filled with dishes. Lila stood beside her, waiting patiently for Halina to return with me. The sound of them talking filtered across the water to my ears, but I could not make out what they said, at least not until we got closer.
Lila noticed our approach first, although I believe that Nokomi felt us arrive before she indicated that she knew we were here. Just as I felt my forehead flush, I knew that she would know of my presence without having to see or hear us. Dog whined excitedly, feeling her nearby.
Now that we were all well aware of each other, I saw Nokomi stand and look our way. She waited there patiently, allowing us to approach this time. I’ll admit that I was a little disappointed that she didn’t rush over to throw a second embrace our way, but I understood it. She had a level of decorum to maintain. I was a soldier, and she was the princess.
“Princess Nokomi.” I sketched a bow upon arrival, ascending the three steps quickly to be near her.
“Captain Goren.” Nokomi was decidedly cool, but beautiful regardless.
I kept trying to meet Nokomi’s gaze, but her eyes kept slipping away. I felt a pang, but tried not to let it show. I cast a look Halina’s way, but her face was a careful mask, though I knew she was observing me.
At least Nokomi greeted Dog enthusiastically when he crossed the distance between us. He enjoyed the attention, startling the timid Lila as he barked excitedly and set his tail to smacking the poor handmaiden on the legs. Lila let out a little shriek and backed away, falling onto a cushioned lounge. I smiled, but took Nokomi’s cue to not be too forward, and decided to take a look around instead.
The pavilion was about fifteen paces on a side and perfectly square. About half of it was built over the water, with pilings sinking down into the clear water toward piles of white stones on the bottom of the lake, which was about half again as deep as I was tall. The water was clear and pleasant-looking, with fish swimming around placidly.
A waist-high railing ran around the whole pavilion, except where the stairs on the southern side allowed entrance to the covered area. Each of the balusters that connected the floor to the rail had been carved to look like different water birds or fish. Every piece of wood gleamed with the oils that had been worked into the grains of the wood, preserving it from the weather and sun. The structure was well-made, with careful joints and clean lines. Even the rafters above me were masterfully joined and kept clean of bird nests.
“Do you like it?” Halina asked. “The birds, the fish, the calm water… It is very calming.”
I looked at her, watching Nokomi watching us out of the corner of her eyes. Was she doing all the talking on purpose? Was this what it would mean to be close to Nokomi? Would we forever be talking through someone, rather than to each other?
“It is a wonder, this place. I have never seen so much water.” I moved to railing at the edge of the pavilion, past the sitting area and the food and drink assembled on the table.
Dog scampered over and stuck his face between the balusters. He barked at the fish he saw in the water, that or his reflection upon the glassy water. Dog and I stood there for a long moment, saying nothing.
“It is one of my favorite places in this whole cage we call a home.” Nokomi said with no small measure of sadness in her voice as she took a place a few paces away along the railing on our right.
“It was a wonder that I was allowed in the palace the other day to greet you.”
“Her mother scolded her.” Halina whispered into my left ear quietly, smirking until Nokomi shot her a warning glance. Halina retreated to Lila’s side.
I stood at the rail, hands on the smooth wood, taking the soft breeze upon my face, cooling the soft burn I felt from both the sun and Nokomi. “I understand duty, princess.”
“I suppose you do, after all of these years…”
Nokomi was suddenly right beside me, looking out across the water. Her eyes stayed on the nearest of the small islands, where birds with long, curved beaks stalked the water’s edge, looking for minnows or other small food. I watched them also, until I felt something brush against my hand.
I swallowed and looked down at her hand, resting upon the railing, palm up and ever so slightly touching mine. I saw a small white scar upon her palm from the same cut that had leaked its blood into my forehead, bonding us together as children. Our eyes met.
My throat tightened. My skin felt aflame. That cool burn that had been contained to my face was now raging through my veins. I felt heat from her skin pour across the narrow space between us. Dog suddenly sat very alert between us, looking up at our faces.
“What did my mother ask of you?” Nokomi whispered, knowing I could not keep the truth from her when I was lost in her eyes.
“She wanted me to spy on your suitors. I’m to protect you from them, but also observe and offer my opinions of them to her.” I whispered back.
I did not feel that I was betraying either Kalb or the Empress. Nokomi and I were pack, and my allegiance was ever to her first, and others later. I would never harm her.
“And my father?” She asked.
“He asked me to do what Kalb wishes of me in order to protect and serve your family.” I answered. I swallowed and asked the question that tickled at my tongue. “And what would you ask of me, princess? How can I serve you?”
Nokomi took a breath the speak, but stopped. Her brow wrinkled in consternation. She licked her lips, thought better of it, and broke away from my eyes.
I heard a clatter of dishes behind us. Halina and Lila were very much watching us, but they made a show of setting up tea. The tea had already been set up before, so it was clearly just something to keep their hands busy.
Nokomi placed her hand atop mine, and I turned back to her in surprise. “I would have you be a true friend to me, Go.”
“Always, princess.” I smiled. “It is what I have always wished since the day we met. It is what I have worked all these years to get back to you for.”
Her earlier anxieties faded, and she warmed me with one of her rarest smiles, one of those that lit up the day. She led me over to the sitting area, and the four of us spoke at length of palace life, of the places I’d seen in my travels, and of her family.
Lila spoke at length only once, retelling a story that had both the princess and Halina laughing until they clutched at each other with tears in their eyes and could hardly breathe. Lila spoke rarely, but she had a keen eye for detail and was a great study of a person’s traits and habits. She could imitate people and tell a story in such a detailed manner that made you feel as if you’d been there.
Dog dined on bread and treats that the girls fed him, teaching him a trick where he held a scrap on his nose for as long as he could, and then he had to snap it up before it hit the ground. He put up with their little game, because it was the most attention he’d had in weeks, as well as some of the best little pieces of meat either of us had ever tasted. I’d never known him to be such an attention-hog, and I feared he would be spoiled by our time in the palace, but I let him get away with it.
When the meeting was over, the midday meal bells had long since rung, and we left with a promise to meet again sometime soon. Dog and I retreated to our home, memorizing the layout of this new piece of the palace grounds, but palace maps were not so memorable as the tingling reminder of Nokomi’s hand upon on my own.
National Novel Writing Month 2019: The Emperor's Dogs