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.
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.
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.
The guards outside the north gates relayed my message to the instructors, who came at once.
“Let him out.” Green ordered. “Only him. His dog stays on that side of the gate.”
I frowned at that. Did they really think I would attack them? What would I gain from that? Was that how far they trusted me now? Only I was permitted out into the gallery. The four instructors surrounded me with a dozen guards ringing us in.
I glanced around, but saw no sign of the Emperor or of Kalb.
“What have you all decided?” Green inquired. A worried look flashed over his features before he clamped down on it. The look vanished, and once again he was all business.
I regarded the four nearly-identical faces. They were all grave as I began to explain what we had decided, and they grew more severe as I finished. “I will execute Drum personally. Then, we will separate Tiny and Drum’s dog, Bear, so they have a chance to bond. We don’t want to lose Tiny.”
“How does he know about that?” Red hissed at Green.
“Sardar told you?” Green looked incredulous.
“We all know.” I assured them.
“There were mistakes at the beginning, Go.” Grey offered apologetically. “We were learning. It only happened once, and we have changed the way we do things since then.”
“Maybe it was a mistake, but there will be more changes.” I smiled secretively.
“Oh?” Green’s eyes narrowed.
“I will explain what’s going to happen when the Emperor and his advisor are present.”
“You will explain…” Red scoffed. “You will explain nothing to the Emperor! You are here as a servant of the Emperor! You will do his bidding.”
I shrugged. “That may be true, but he will hear my demands, or we will no longer participate. None of us will.”
“We?” Blue asked. A look dawned on his face, and I think he got it far before the others. He must have realized that we were united.
Red snorted a laugh. “You mean you and your new little crew? Pack Panj is a small piece of this place. How dare you presume to speak for them all.”
I shook my head. “Panj is no more, Red. We are Sefr.”
“Sefr? There is no Pack Sefr.” Red replied.
“We are all Sefr now. All or nothing.” I repeated.
Blue put a restraining hand on Red’s forearm when he looked as if he might say more. “Red... Stop.”
“What do you mean stop? How dare this upstart tell us what to do? We are the leaders of this place.” Red insisted.
“Not anymore.” I said defiantly. I was feeling bold, and I must admit there was a fair chance a smirk stole across my face.
Red’s face flushed and he made as if to hit me, but there was a bark from across the gallery, in the second floor box. Red turned to find a pair of yellow eyes glaring down on him from across the sand. The four instructors froze.
“Things are going to change.” Green muttered.
Kalb, satisfied that the aggression had ended, turned on his heels and marched off from the gallery. Only minutes later, he emerged from the south gates with the Emperor at his side. This time, there were no royal guards with them.
The Emperor strode purposefully across the sand, hand on his sword hilt. He spoke in low tones to Kalb as he went, low enough that even I could not hear. Clearly, he was a man used to our abilities and limitations. It raised his worth in my esteem, but I still could not forgive him for putting me here, for separating me from Nokomi, even if she was his daughter.
My four instructors lowered their heads and bowed, Red deepest of all, as the Emperor took his place beside us. I mirrored their bows. Kalb and Teeth waited beside Emperor Baraz, waiting for him to speak first.
“You have come to a consensus? A decision has been made?” The Emperor asked of me. He was straight to the point, not one to waste time.
“The packs have come together as one to support my decision.” I let the implications of that settle in.
“And?” The Emperor asked.
“I will execute Drum.” I lifted my chin and dared him to deny me.
“You would do this yourself?” The Emperor looked surprised at this.
He gave me a hard look, as if wondering if I could do this thing, or maybe wondering how it would change me to do so. “And if I tell you that he is too valuable to lose?”
“I would tell you that you are mistaken. Then I would kill him anyway at some point in the near future.”
The Emperor looked to his advisor and frowned. “Quite a bloodthirsty little boy we have here, is it not?”
Kalb’s eyebrow rose and his mouth twitched into a smile beneath his beard. “It appears so.”
“It is what you made me.” I explained.
The Emperor turned his gaze to the four instructors then. “Do you hear him? He says I, through you and this place, have made a murderer of him.”
“Emperor…” Green began.
“Silence!” The Emperor growled. “I will not hear your half-hearted explanations. I will not hear excuses. I know of the many mistakes that have occurred in this place. I know that we need to make changes.”
He took a deep breath then continued, “I need men that can make hard choices, and I need loyalty. What I do not need is murderers made from alley brats.”
“It is loyalty that compels this murder, Emperor, loyalty to my pack.” I explained.
“And which pack is that?” Kalb wondered.
I grinned toothily. “Pack Sefr. We are all, or we are nothing.”
Kalb whispered something to the Emperor, and the Emperor’s eyes swept back my way. He said nothing for a long moment, and then spoke to Kalb instead. “These boys have value, but only if they turn out as I need them. I may need them to kill without hesitation, but only when directed, and only in the service of this kingdom. I need someone here that I can trust to make sure these boys are trained as I need.”
“You are asking me?” Kalb looked from the Emperor back to me, appraisingly.
“You will begin dividing your attention between here and the capital. At least a week a month will have to be spent here, more at first.”
“Emperor,” Kalb looked alarmed, “we are about business of the highest importance in the capital. My absence will mean…”
“I will make do without you, Kalb. It is not forever, and I know I can count on you being there when it is most important.”
I recalled something of the conversation I’d had with Kalb when I’d been under arrest. When would the next attempt on the Emperor’s life come? Would we be ready by then? Would thwarting the next assassination be part of what we would be called to do?
Kalb shook his head but looked resigned to do as told. Teeth settled onto the sand beside him, as if already getting comfortable with the place.
“There is more, Emperor.” I announced. I wasn’t sure how much more I could push my luck, but this was the time, if ever. Who could say when he would next visit. It might be months, even years before I saw his face again.
“I’m not sure I want to hear more from you.” The Emperor declared. I waited. We all did. Finally, the Emperor sighed and waved his hand. “Say your piece, then.”
I took a breath and then launched into my plan, “This place has been segregated into groups that caused divisions and strife among us. We have all joined into a new pack, a single pack to serve you. As a united pack, we must demand that the instruction here changes. We need to adjust instruction to create cooperation and growth, not vicious competition. Each of us should be able to stand on our own when needed, but it is as a collective group that we are strongest. That is how we should be used.”
“This one thinks to explain strategy to me.” The Emperor laughed.
“And yet he is not entirely wrong.” Kalb pulled at his beard.
“This one has shown a strength of leadership. The others look up to him.” Red reluctantly admitted.
“I will set Kalb to reorganizing this place. As I understand, you are the most advanced student here, in terms of your special abilities. I will expect you to work along with him and these four instructors to redesign the instruction to fit my needs.”
“Yes, Emperor.” I sketched a hasty bow.
“Now, he’s obedient.” The Emperor laughed.
“But there is another matter, that of Drum’s dog.” Kalb said soberly. “What will become of the beast with his master dead?”
“We will give him the chance to bond to Tiny. We hope they will bond and save both dog and boy.” I announced.
“Can that work?” The Emperor asked.
“It is exceedingly rare, but there are precedents.” Kalb answered, giving me a look that told me he knew about Sardar, and how could he not?
The Emperor nodded. “Let us pray it works, so we do not lose two boys and two dogs from this incident. That would be a tragic waste. Give them whatever it needs to make it happen. Make it a priority.”
“Then it is all decided?” Green asked, almost meekly.
The Emperor nodded. “Let it be done this evening. Prepare the gallery for an execution. Let the blood stain the sands of this place as a reminder of what has happened. He is one of ours, and he will be buried on the premises. He does not die with honor, but we must respect what it costs to make this place better.”
“Emperor!” The four instructors said almost simultaneously. They broke away, leaving to see to his will.
That left only Kalb, his dog, the Emperor, and myself. The Emperor regarded me warily. “I still remember you from that first day…”
“In the alley.” I finished.
He smiled at the memory. “You had bravely killed that desert cat. That beast was easily the size of you and your dog put together.”
I touched the scar across my forehead, remembering. “It was a good fight.”
“You were so defiant, even then. You have steel within you, Go.”
“And fire.” I replied softly.
The Emperor reached over and touched my forehead. It was hard not to flinch away from his touch, but I held very still. Dog tensed on the other side of the gate, but there was no harm in the touch. The Emperor’s eyes closed for a moment, and a smile crossed his face. I felt a tingle through my scalp as his calloused hand rested on my forehead.
“And fire.” The Emperor agreed.
Kalb swallowed audibly and looked away when the Emperor glanced over at him. Had he not told his master of my connection to Nokomi? Still, the Emperor did not seem displeased.
“I hope that this thing tonight does not haunt you too badly, Go. You cannot kill a man and not bear the weight of it. It is not something done lightly, but you have already said you would do it, so I will not relieve you of this duty. This is just one of the costs of leadership.”
“I will do my best to bear it.” I bowed my head.
“See that you do.”
The Emperor and Kalb left then, leaving me standing there. Teeth smiled at me, a dog’s smile. He came over and let me rub between his ears, and then he left, following the sandy footprints left by his master and his master’s master.
I watched them leave, and then went back to the gates, where the guards allowed me back into the north wing. Dog greeted me happily. He’d been anxious behind the gates, but his worries had been unfounded.
I felt relieved. Everything I’d asked for had been given to me. Except, I’d have to kill Drum in just a short while. I’d asked for it. I’d demanded it. Now I had to kill for the first time.
I wasn’t sure I was built for murder, even if it was justified. But I’d have to if I wanted to get back to Nokomi.
I snarled and leaped over Tiny, putting myself between Bear and my prone friend. His dog might be dead, but I would not let any more harm come to him. Dog snapped and barked at Bear, who held his head low, drooling and rheumy eyed.
A few of the auburn guards broke decorum first, letting swords fly in the presence of the Emperor as they closed on Bear and Drum. This set off a chain reaction of weapons coming out. The Emperor’s own sword remained sheathed on his hip, but all of his soldiers had their weapons out and had closed around him in just moments. Spears and pairs of swords bristled around the Emperor like a hedgehog.
Our instructors were yelling for calm and trying to get their guards to stand down, but the auburn guards were terrified now, with the Emperor’s guards all showing steel and some of them still standing unarmed. Most of them had reluctantly drawn their weapons as well, but they had not moved from their posts around us. Things were just a misstep or two from becoming a bloodbath.
“Stand down!” The Emperor bellowed. He had a voice that carried commands well. He was a natural leader. I could not smell even a single hint of fear on him, and his soldiers were nearly as good.
While his command might have worked for humans, it put all of the dogs on edge. Already, all of Panj was spoiling for a fight. We were out for blood, and Bull’s Pack Se was ready to follow us. What was left of Chahar stood in shock. Scar was looking around nervously, arms spread in a crouch, huddled beside his black attack dog. He and the rest of Pack Do were ready to fight anyone that came too close. Of all of us, Pack Yek was the only one to remain calm and keep their dogs from barking or scrambling around.
Panj had Drum and Bear half surrounded, backed against a row of auburn guard spears, spears that wavered after being told to stand down. Dogs snarled and barked at each other, dozens of bared teeth flashing and ready for violence.
My muscles bulked up, ready to explode into action, but Kalb barked. His bark was a resounding echo of a noise, all from a deformed mouth that was somewhere between human and canine. He and Teeth parted the Emperor’s guards, and he came to face us, Old Yellow-Eyes.
“Go!” He shouted. “Drum!”
I tilted my head at him. I was still crouched over Tiny’s body, with Little Dog’s still form beside my feet. “This cannot stand, Kalb!” I shouted back at him. “He killed one of ours!”
My neck bristled, and my fingernails ached as the elongated. I could feel my eyes flash yellow back at him. My muscles were tight like a bowstring, ready to release me as a deadly arrow.
Drum laughed. “Go, it is you we cannot stand! You have ruined this place!”
Kalb stepped over to Bear, who snarled and showed his teeth. When Kalb did not back down, but snarled back instead, Bear bowed his head in fear of the superior foe that Kalb presented. “Stand down, Drum. That is the order of your Emperor.”
“What is he to me, beyond a statue? What is he to any of us?” Drum cried. Tears streamed down his face. “He’s a face we are taught to respect… and why? He tore us from our homes. He put us in this cursed place!”
“I did put you here.” The Emperor admitted, parting his guards and coming to stand beside Kalb and Teeth. He stared unflinchingly at the broken boy. “I did all of that. I did it because I have need of you all.”
“What of our needs!” Drum protested. “Have you given a thought to those?”
The Emperor’s hand rested on his sword hilt, but he made no move to draw it. He looked at Kalb beside him, a dog in the general guise of a man, not fully human in appearance or soul. “My needs outweigh yours.”
“Why?” It was a half whine and half screech that left Drum’s angry mouth.
“Because I am the Emperor. I have responsibilities to all of the people in this land. You all will help me carry them out. You will help me make this a better land.”
It wasn’t a practiced speech, but it rang true. Perhaps that was why it rang true. The Emperor truly believed what he said. I could hear it in his voice. We’d all have been able to hear lies if he spoke them. Still, believing him and doing what he required were two very different things.
“But what if there is no place left in this land for us when you are done?”
“Then I have failed in my oath to uphold this land.” The Emperor answered.
“What he’s done cannot be forgiven.” I hissed, ignoring attempts from our instructors to silence me.
At this, our instructors cast apologies at the Emperor, bowing obsequiously, but he was unconcerned with their words. He was entirely focused on Kalb, Drum, and I.
Kalb regarded me coldly with his burning yellow eyes. “The Emperor will decide what can be forgiven and what cannot.”
I shook my head. “There is no place left in here for him. He will never be accepted again.”
“He’s right.” Drum admitted. “I have no place at all. I have no life left. All I have is my anger. My hate. All I could do is share it with them.” Drum tilted his head back at an odd angle, smiling at the sky.
The Emperor watched this exchange with a growing frown. “This is an awful display, Kalb.” His eyes turned to the painful sight of Little Dog’s still body in the sand beside his master. “What a waste of potential. Are these beasts truly here to learn serve me? Can they?”
Bull approached then, holding up his hands to show he was unarmed. “We are not all like him, Emperor. We have order among us. We are pack. I do not want to think that any of us is too far gone, but Drum is sick. He is a mad beast that should be put down. You do not keep sick animals with the healthy ones, or they can all go bad...”
The Emperor’s mouth twisted. He chewed his inner lip as he considered these words. “Kalb, what would you have us do?”
Kalb cleared his throat before he spoke. “This is a delicate matter. We are at a turning point in the training. Drum knows too much to let go, but he is no longer welcome here.”
“With all respect, this is a pack matter now.” I held my chin up and dared the Emperor to disagree. It might not have been a wise choice, but I made it anyway. I owed Tiny that much.
“A pack matter?” The Emperor snorted. “What does that mean?”
“If your child misbehaves, do you allow another to punish her, or do you punish her yourself? That is what I mean. He is one of us, and this is a pack matter. We must be allowed to decide for ourselves what punishment best suits him. This is not for our instructors, not this school, and, respectfully, not for you, Emperor, to decide.”
Grey looked as if I’d just struck him in the gut. He went white with fear and bowed as he shouted out an apology on my behalf, “Your excellency, I must apologize for this one! He is one of our newest recruits, and he has been slow to grasp his lessons on etiquette, and he does not yet grasp the chain of command or the more central fundamentals of soldiering!”
The Emperor’s eyebrow rose. “Yet I understand he is one of your more capable fighters.”
“He is, excellency.” Grey admitted, keeping his head low.
The Emperor turned to square his shoulders at me. “What would this pack justice entail?”
“It would fall upon our pack, as the injured pack, as well as Pack Chahar, his former pack, to decide.” I suggested. I’d not really thought that far ahead.
“And any decision would have to be agreed on by all of the packs as a collective, Emperor...” Bull suggested.
“Curious.” He turned to Kalb. “We shall see this done, this strange version of military justice. I will be staying in the quarters here until this justice is seen to. Keep me apprised of the situation. I would be present when any sentence and justice is handed out.”
The Emperor waved off his guards, who sheathed their weapons smoothly and fell back to follow him across the sand toward the south gates. He paused briefly, looking across the statues of himself and his family. I couldn’t be certain, but it almost seemed as if his gaze rested longest on the statue of Nokomi, his favorited daughter.
Abruptly, the Emperor turned back and announced, “I leave this matter in your hands, Go. Choose wisely in this grave situation. An ill choice here could mean the end of this place, but a wise choice could see you all at the center of my plans.”
With that, he vanished, leaving Kalb to glare at us for a moment longer before he, too, left, likely to confer with the Emperor. I had no doubt that he would be back. His dog, Teeth, barked at the whole lot of us twice, looking disapprovingly at what had befallen Tiny and Little Dog. He left as well, heavy paws taking him across the sand to the south gates.
Our instructors, Blue, Red, Grey, and Green fell upon us then, forcing us all back into our north wing with their curses, orders, and general disapproval. They made as if to have the auburn guards move Tiny, but Dog and I snarled and snapped at them. Panj carried their own.
Killer and the others took Tiny in their arms, while I cradled the wreckage of Little Dog in my two hands. He looked ever so small, a sad, broken caricature of what he had been in life. My hands and heart ached as I carried him, knowing I would never see those tiny teeth flash again, stabbing at my fingers when we played.
Panj took Tiny and Little Dog back to our room while a detachment of the auburn guards escorted Bear and Drum. Those two had given up any shred of resistance and followed lamely, doing as they were told for once. They would await their sentence in a cell, likely the one he’d been in just weeks before.
The gates to the north wing slammed shut behind us, but a detachment of guards waited in the halls, and we could hear our instructors arguing behind the gates.
There were decisions to be made.
Mongrel’s mutt recovered, but limped still. I suspected there was a break, but it would heal. Mongrel knew his animal best. He spent the better part of a week resting, skipping classes to stay in an almost constant state of meditation. His whole reduced pack sat with him in the evenings. Even Pack Yek sat with them one night, making a second circle that surrounded the four members of Chahar as they watched over the wounded dog. I’m not certain that it helped, but they kept Mongrel fed and focused on getting better.
I knew what it was to share pain with my animal. Dog and I had both been hurt before, and the healing always went fastest when we both experienced it. It is nearly impossible to fully explain the sensation with one who has not bonded with another in the same way. Perhaps a parent knows what it is to watch a child suffer, to want to take on some of their pain. But what if they really could? That is what it is for us of the Old Blood.
For days and weeks, Drum was a festering sore on our collective hides. He remained bitterly alone, although he attended classes with Chahar. He was clearly apart from them, but he had nowhere else to go, and the instructors seemed dumbfounded by the changes, however warranted.
They had no procedures for a lone student, one shunned by his pack and shut out from socializing with the other packs. It wasn’t what was supposed to happen, so they went on as if nothing was wrong, and that did nothing to deal with the problem. Drum grew more bitter, more withdrawn. Bear snapped at everyone.
They began feeding him alone, but it had been quite the conversation the first night when meal time came. They’d sent for Green, who had demanded to know what was going on. No one would say anything about the ostracized former leader of Chahar. Green even cast his accusing eyes at me, but he relented when my whole pack defended me.
In the end, they’d started sending a sixth basket of food, a small one, with Drum and Bear’s food in it. He’d become Pack Sefr without intending to do so. The nickname stuck, even when they went to classes. The other boys would always joke about having to battle against Pack Sefr, but as vicious as Drum was becoming, no one really wanted to do it.
It was into this mess that the Emperor walked. He came for an unannounced inspection. We didn’t know what was going on. We just knew that we were all woken up early one morning by Grey and we were told to put on our dress uniforms and gather in the gallery.
“What’s going on?” Everyone asked at once.
“The Emperor is here!” Grey hissed. “He’s trying to see how his investment has paid off. You all need to be dressed and presentable in fifteen minutes. Make it happen.” He clapped, setting off a commotion of dressing, washing, and shoe-tying.
We all hurried to the bathroom to wash up, comb our hair with our fingers, pee, and get ourselves presentable, all of us except Drum. The energy was palpable. It was like preparing for war, a war against being found lacking.
Back in our rooms, we struggled with tying shoes. Killer was the best at it. His thick fingers were surprisingly nimble. He tied my shoes and everyone else’s in the room. We looked each other over, straightening collars and hair for each. I imagine that all of our preening was pathetic compared to what real soldiers would have done, but we did our best.
Before we were really ready, we were led out into the gallery. We fell into ranks by pack, arranging ourselves in order of experience, with Yek at one end and our pack at the other.
The sun was morning sun was just creeping up over the horizon, threatening to spill its light over the second floor walls of the gallery. The air was humid, but chilly, and the ground was damp with the morning dew. We fidgeted under the watchful gaze of our three instructors: Red, Blue, and Grey. They seemed as nervous as we were. Green was nowhere to be seen.
Grey gave us a few reminders as we awaited our inspections. “Remember, you are servants of the Emperor. Display yourselves as worthy of his attention, but remember your manners! You will not speak to him unless spoken to. You will answer any and every question quickly and fully.”
Red’s pep talk followed Grey’s. “Display yourselves as soldiers. Stand tall. Stand proud!” He paced up and down our row, fixing collars, straightening shirts, and demanding that no fewer than three pairs of shoes were retied properly. He made several sit their dogs at attention. According to him, dogs were not to laze about in the presence of the Emperor.
I smiled at this. Did they not understand animals? Dogs lazed about most of the day. It was in their natures. They stood at attention for a reason and quickly became relaxed when there was a lack of a reason.
Blue had no words. He merely eyed the whole lot of us critically. He was as quiet and serious as the auburn guards, all of which seemed to be present and on the grounds. The auburn guards nervously shifted their stances, slight twitches that would have been unnoticeable to some without such sharp senses as we had.
We stood in that humid morning air, smelling breakfast being cooked somewhere in the south wing. More than one stomach growled. Tiny laughed, but quickly quieted once more when Blue’s gaze shifted his way.
Eventually, the south gates opened, permitting a troop of no less than a score of armored soldiers. They fanned out, ten going each way. These were professional killers, and they were attired as such. They moved with predatory grace that exhibited their obvious skill.
They wore spiked helmets, with chainmail draping down over their shoulders and neck. Nose guards from the helmets and red scarf across the face obscured all but the soldiers’ eyes. Their armor was layers of leather and scales, with the scales set more heavily into the chest and shoulders of their armor. Layered leather skirting protected their hips and thighs. Some of them wore vambraces over their wrists. Those ones carried bronze-tipped throwing spears, with several extra spears holstered across their backs. The others wore heavy gloves and carried pairs of curved swords, one at each hip.
Clearly, this show of force was to dissuade any of us, like me, from challenging the Emperor as I had defied Green just a few weeks back. The Emperor entered with Green on his left and Kalb on his right. Another ten soldiers followed him in. From watching them, I knew that in moments, the three groups could fold in and create a deadly triangle around their Emperor, one that our concerted effort would likely not succeed in breaking.
The Emperor was much as I recalled – exactly like his statue, if smaller. The statue was, of course, far beyond human scale, probably double his actual size. He wore his conical head wrap and his layered coats and wide pants. Belted over his gilded coat was that same curved blade I remembered from the day I met Nokomi.
I craned my neck, hoping beyond all reason that the Emperor had brought his daughter with him on this inspection. But why would he? Why would he bring her to this secret school full of dogs and boys? There was no hint of her scent on the wind.
The Emperor strode out to five long paces in front of us and regarded us all with his shrewd gaze. “This is what I am spending so much money on? This rabble of dogs and underfed boys?”
Kalb laughed. “Was I not also an underfed boy when we met? Have I not proven my worth, Majesty?”
The Emperor’s face crinkled into a smile. “Very true, old friend.” He clapped Kalb across the shoulder. Then he reached down and rubbed Teeth between the ears. Teeth’s tongue lolled out happily.
Tiny and I exchanged gazes. Blue’s hawk eyes swiveled our way again. We snapped back to attention.
The Emperor paced the length of our class, from Yek to Panj, and back again. He stopped here and there, inquiring about breeds of specific dogs. On his way past our pack, he locked eyes with me for a moment and looked as if he might say something.
Instead, the Emperor turned to Tiny and smiled. “That is quite a small animal beside you. What is his name?”
L.D. growled, baring all of his small teeth at the Emperor, shocking Grey, but eliciting a laugh from the Emperor. Tiny sketched a clumsy bow and did his best to answer. “L.D., Emperor. His name is L.D., for Little Dog.”
“Fierce, isn’t he?” The Emperor favored both dog and boy with a warm smile.
“I think he likes you, Sir.” Tiny suggested. L.D. seemed to comply with a bug-eyed snarl.
The Emperor laughed aloud, a deep belly laugh. “I’d hate to see what he’d do if he didn’t like me.”
“Would you now, your highness?” A voice drawled.
We all turned to the source of the voice, finding Drum strolling out from the north gates with his beast of a dog, Bear. Guards all through the gallery put hands to weapons, but none drew. They would not, not without orders.
“Who is this one?” The Emperor inquired, curious about the one who walked out when he pleased and spoke when not spoken to.
“That one is Drum.” Green said, matter-of-factly. His voice was tight, and his expression most severe. He nearly waved the auburn guards to surround them, but the Emperor held up his hand to stop any such thing from happening.
“Ahh, so this is the one who despoiled my daughter’s statue.” The Emperor looked Drum over appraisingly, his eyes lingering longest on the beast beside him.
Drum looked surprised that the Emperor had heard of his exploits, but he didn’t seem to care. He’d shown up in his street rags, refusing to put on the uniforms as we all had. He went barefoot, true to himself. His dog, every massive pound of him, bristled at the guards.
I had a sick feeling in my stomach as Drum sidled up just beyond us to join the line, putting himself in the sixth position, as a group of one, rather than trying to retake his place with Chahar. He truly was showing himself to be Pack Sefr. Bear did not sit. He stood, swiveling his large head back and forth, growling at everyone.
“So you’ve heard about that?” Drum laughed. “We’re all dogs here.”
The Emperor favored him with a hard stare, but Drum’s fevered eyes were wild and unfocused. He didn’t wilt under that gaze as he might have once. “We piss on things, my Emperor. It’s what we do.”
“It’s what you do.” Tiny muttered just loud enough for everyone to hear. L.D. yipped in agreement.
“Yes. Making messes. It’s what we do.” Drum smiled sickly, turning to Tiny. He signaled to Bear, and the massive dog surged over, snapping L.D. up in his jaws. It was all of two steps for him. No one could have stopped him.
With a quick wet crunch, it was all over. L.D. was dead. Bear spat Tiny’s fierce little dog onto the sand. Broken. Lifeless.
Tiny dropped to his knees as if shot in the heart, going white in the face. A scream died in his throat, ending as a gurgle. His eyes rolled back in his head and he fainted right out, hitting the sand as if he’d been struck dead.
I felt a howl in the back of my throat, and everything started to happen all at once…
National Novel Writing Month 2019: The Emperor's Dogs