The flash of light from the Emperor’s dying explosion blinded many of those that might have blocked our way to the royal residence. Scar and I wove our way between many combatants that had been thrown to the ground by the blast, blinded by the light of it, or were choking on dust cloud that washed out in the wake of the explosion.
I waited until the light behind me faded and risked a glance back. It was hard to see through the dust, falling ashes, and the glowing haze of the crater that marked the Emperor’s point of death, but I could see that the gates that Bull had died keeping open were gone. An entire block of buildings and everyone in or around them had been erased from existence, leaving a smoking hole in the ground. What a waste, I thought sadly, turning back toward the royal residence.
People were screaming ahead of us, as well as all around us. Roof tiles from the palace had cracked and had fallen on the people below. One of the watchtowers to my right, the one nearest the explosion, leaned to one side, lurching slightly as its bell continued to ring. Here and there, I still saw small knots of soldiers fighting, loyalists battling Navid’s usurpers. I had no time for them. The Emperor was dead, there was a fair chance that I was the only hope left for what remained of his family. I would not fail him in that, even if I hadn’t been able to save him. Or Kalb.
I gritted my teeth and willed myself past tears that threatened. I couldn’t believe old yellow-eyes was dead. He and Teeth had been a driving force in my life since childhood, much of it under the direction of Emperor Baraz, also deceased. Another time, another person, and I might have been delighted to be freed from the bonds of servitude, but I had no time for such thoughts. I could only think of Nokomi, who I felt through my bond. She needed me.
Scar struggled to keep up with me. He’d never been able to let his humanity go as easily as I could mine, which was ironic, seeing as how people viewed him as less than human because of his scars. I passed more easily for normal than he ever had, and I had little love for it, while he craved the normalcy that it would have granted him.
A snarl to my left proved to be two more of Navid’s Wolves. Other than the glowing red eyes and the sharp teeth, they could have passed for human. No one would make that mistake of me, not even in the dusk light. I barked a challenge at them, they halted their advance, thought better of it, and fled back the way they’d come. They’d likely kill a few more loyalists instead of hinder Nokomi’s rescue. I was fine with that. Those soldiers weren’t pack. Nokomi was.
We moved on the south side of the residence, where a small bronze dome with pillars supporting its weight had been set up as a stepping stone between the palace and the residence. Known as Heartfire Monument, its floor was inlaid with a mosaic of tiles depicting flames spreading outward from a black center in an artful way that almost resembled a flower, unless you really looked at it.
To my right, I could see groundskeepers’ homes, a village of tiny homes much like the scribes’ village I’d been put up in. Some of them had come out to see what was going on, but many of the smallfolk of the palace knew instinctively to close their doors and shutter their windows when the warning bells rang. It looked clear of enemies, so, we pressed on for the Heartfire Monument.
As we approached it, Scar reached out and touched my arm. I glared at him, but he signaled to the broad pillars that supported the dome. I sniffed the air once, growling low in my throat. I’d been watching our flank, and Scar had noticed enemies that I might have otherwise missed. I barked, Dog echoing my challenge.
Soldiers slid out from behind the pillars, armed heavily. These were not simple foot soldiers. In fact, judging from their armaments, they had been assembled to kill ones such as Dog and I.
I eyed the heavy greaves upon their arms, barred helms, thick chest plates, and the reinforced nooses they carried on long poles. Others held horse spears, weapons designed to fight cavalry with. They thought they could keep me at a distance and take me down. I would have laughed if I had time for such things.
Scar and his black dog looked ready to back me, but I worried. There were a dozen of these soldiers, and likely more already heading toward Nokomi. I could already feel her fear and her sense of loss through our bond. My forehead tingled like a dozen pinpricks, and I let loose a deafening roar of challenge.
I stepped up the five stairs to the platform, with Dog, Scar, and his dog, Black. I smiled at my companions, because in that moment, judging from the smells and nervous shifting of the soldiers’ feet, we had the upper hand.
“All or nothing.” Scar yelled, his words surprisingly clear as he charged the left side of the soldiers.
I followed his lead and went right, except I came in high, while he stayed low. I darted forward and jumped toward the nearest pillar. That leap carried me up over my enemies’ heads, and I used that height to spring off the pillar at the nearest enemy.
I struck him perpendicular to what he’d expected, and he couldn’t turn his horse spear fast enough to protect himself. My crushing blow broke both of his legs, leaving Dog to finish him as I spun off after the next enemy. This one carried a noose, which he whipped toward my head, trying to lasso it around my neck.
There was no way I was going to let him choke me to death with that thing, but if enough of them surrounded me, there was a chance that at least one of them would get lucky. I also had to assume that they’d done this before, likely practicing on some of Navid’s Wolves.
I caught the noose with my hand, intending to rip the pole, noose and all, from his hands. Except, the noose cord was studded with something sharp, and it shredded my hand as he yanked it back. Hissing in anger, I went in low and ripped him open from his ankles to his groin.
That guard crumpled to the ground, blood spurting on my face as another noose fell dangerously close to my neck. The noose scraped my ear instead of finding my neck as I jerked my head to the side. Dog lunged at that soldier, but backed off when another noose came at him. The remaining soldiers quickly spread out, trying to ring us in.
Scar had killed one soldier as well, but he was being pressed into the center of the circle with us. Nine more of these dog hunters ringed us, and they were patient, cautious fighters. They were highly disciplined – I had to give them that. They remained focused even after the bloody deaths of their comrades.
I stepped over to one of the dying soldiers, lifted up his noose, and cast the capped end of it like a spear at one of my enemies before they could react. The pole shattered, and while it did not puncture his breast plate, it did knock him back with the force of a mule’s kick. He staggered backward, tumbling over the railing and falling off the platform. He went crashing to the ground outside very awkwardly, and I seriously doubted he’d get up.
I held up eight fingers to taunt the soldiers, laughing. Dog howled in triumph.
Three of them came at me with their horse spears next, trying to skewer me from the front, my flank, and my back. I jumped to the side, going for the body of another downed soldier. I threw the body at the spears, managing to trap one of them momentarily beneath the dead man’s weight. That was all the time that Scar needed to surge over there and end another soldier’s life.
Scar quickly retreated to my side then, and we held up seven fingers together, four of his with three of mine. I caught the look on his face, a twisted grin that probably matched the one on my own torn face. Undeterred, the remaining soldiers closed their ranks, hedging us in on one side only now, offering us an escape if we wished to retreat back the way we’d come. Getting past them would be much harder.
Even these little triumphs felt too costly, because I could feel Nokomi fighting. I knew she was using her heartfire, because I could feel it as a hot wash across my face from my scarred forehead every time she let her fire loose. I gave another roar, this one of fury and frustration.
That was when I heard an answering howl to mine, followed by another, and then a third.
“The Emperor’s Dogs!” Scar’s eyes flashed brilliantly in contrast to his dark skin.
We had just moments to wait before three more of our kind struck from their rear, vaulting inhumanly high over the railing to attack. Scar cast a look my way before he joined the attack. “Save the Emperor’s family! We’ll handle these ones.”
“Seek me outside the city!” I called to him in the clearest words I could form.
He nodded and fell on the enemy with Black. The last I saw of them, the four men and their dogs were getting the upper hand against the outnumbered dog hunters.
Dog and I ran then, and, in the fading daylight, it brought to mind our one time rendezvous with Nokomi on her balcony. Except, this time we ran along the top of the wall of the Empress’ gardens, approaching from the west rather than the north, and the situation was drastically different.
Days of serving guard duty in the royal residence had granted me a familiarity with its layout. I knew how many paces on a side the wall was, where the stairs were located along the inside of the wall, and where the best handholds were if I had to climb it. I’d always been preparing to attack or escape from this place, no matter what my duties had been. It was how I’d been raised on the streets, to always understand the lay of the land, to know your ins and outs.
We scaled the wall with ease, taking out two of Navid’s men out at the top of the wall without hesitation. I felt Nokomi’s need more intensely as the battle within the walls raged on. Within the residence and on these walls, I saw more soldiers fighting. Soldiers and servants alike lay dead on the grounds and atop the walls. We paid their bodies no heed, advancing on the residence from the grounds, approaching the northwestern tower carefully.
In the smoke and the dusk light, the blue bell-shaped top looked an unwelcoming shade of purple. Above us in the tower, soldiers tried to target us with crossbows, but we hugged the wall, and they could only cast stones down at us, and we weren’t about to let rocks stop us when explosions, spears, wolves, and swords hadn’t been able to.
We quickly rounded the tower, heading toward Nokomi’s balcony. My face felt like it was on fire, and my jaws ached. My fists ached from clenching them so tightly, and I knew that I was starting to fade. I needed to make this happen quickly. I also knew that Dog was nearing his limits. We could not fight and kill forever. We had to rescue Nokomi and get out of the palace, taking the others with us if we could. Deep down, I knew I’d leave everyone else behind if it meant saving her. I hoped it wouldn’t come to that.
I looked to Dog, with his round ears covered with dust and his tongue lolling out tiredly. An arrow sailed overhead, so I reached down for Dog, who was ready for me. I threw him like last time.
He sailed up over the railing onto Nokomi’s balcony, thudding against something I followed him immediately, jumping straight up this time. I caught the bottom of the railing and pulled myself up, swatting another arrow aside as I went.
On top of the balcony, I noticed that the sliding doors had been closed and latched. That left us exposed to arrow fire. Growling, I reached out and grabbed the ornamental handles, tearing the doors open with my bare hands. The handles splintered and came free of the ornamental wood, and the latch gave way.
As soon as I started to slide the doors open, a gout of flame blew past my face. I had very little warning, and my right ear was singed. I heard my flesh sizzle and yelped at the pain of it.
“Stop! It’s the Captain!” Halina shouted.
“Go?” Nokomi called out weakly.
The flash of fire had temporarily blinded me, but when Dog and I advanced into her room, I saw that they had barricaded the entry with furniture and they’d somehow managed to drag the large bed mattress partway over as well. It had several scorch marks on it, and one edge of it still smoldered, filling the room with the stink of burned feathers. Small splatters of blood had been dribbled across the floor, leaking from between Nokomi’s fingers.
On the floor, a soldier with the right side of his body burned away was curled up beside Lila’s still form. Lila’s dead hand still clutched a small knife, but the puddle of blood and the sword wound through her middle indicated she’d died at the hands of this soldier, who had been burned alive by Nokomi. I shook my head at that, thinking that Lila would never again entertain anyone with her imitations of the people she knew and worked with.
“Nokomi.” I tried to say, but it came out as a growl.
“Gods, Captain! Your face.” Halina said in alarm, finally getting a good look at me. She held the dead soldier’s sword and looked as if she knew how to use it. She hesitated, unsure if she might have to use it on me.
Even in her stunned state, pale from the loss of blood and her father, Nokomi could notice that all was not right with me. She did not seem scared of me, at least. Rather, she was scared of the wounds I’d taken. “Go, my father…”
I eased some humanity back into my face, shuddering at the pain of my torn cheeks. The pain was distracting, but communication was necessary, and the more human I became, the more control I had. “I was there, Nokomi. I tried to save him. Kalb did, too. There were just too many.”
Defeat crept across Nokomi’s face, paired with the despair of having confirmation of what she’d known to be true, but prayed as not.
“Where are the others?”
“Mother… Shapur… I tried to get to their rooms, but the hallways were filled with my uncle’s men. They tried to take me.” Nokomi clenched her fist, squeezing her eyes shut tightly. Tears streaked down from the corners of her eyes.
“And your sister? What of Neema?” I asked.
“Dastan.” Halina spat on the floor. “That bastard slipped something in her drink. He surrendered her right away. He said that it was better to live under Navid’s rule than die resisting. I would have killed him, but Navid’s men got there first.”
Dog growled beside me.
“I know.” Halina agreed with him. “Me, too.”
We needed a plan. “Is there a secret way out of the palace? I don’t think we can fight our way out.”
Halina nodded. “Kalb showed me the hidden passages in and out of this place. They lead to the head caretaker’s home, and then there is a passage from there to take us beyond the walls.”
That might work, so long as Navid didn’t also know of them. Either way, we’d have to move quickly, because Navid’s wolves would follow our scents. “Where is the entrance?”
Nokomi nodded, liking our plan. She looked as if she’d gathered her wits about her once more, and she was ready to act. There would be no more hiding for her, at least not until after she’d rescued her mother. “The entrance is upstairs.”
“Upstairs?” It seemed as if it would be downstairs, not upstairs. To go up to go down made little sense, or did it?
“Under the horn statue in the royal library.” Nokomi answered. “But we don’t go without Shapur and my mother.”
“Fine. Let’s go.” I nodded toward the door. “Stay close to me.”
Nokomi spared one last look for Lila, whispered a prayer, and followed me.
Since the attempt on Neema’s life, Dog and I had rarely left the royal residence, other than for occasional meals or to bathe and change clothes, and I made sure to never do that on any regular schedule. I even slept in odd shifts, sometimes during the day, other times during the night or napping for short periods here and there. Between Dog and I, one of us was always alert.
A cry from the second floor made Dog’s ears perk up. I felt a tingle across my face, and I rose from my place on a bench on the main floor. Everything was quiet, and that was whey I’d heard the cry.
Dog and I took the steps two at a time. We came to a halt outside the doors to Nokomi’s room, panting and listening to the sounds within. We had no sooner arrived than the door cracked open just a sliver. Halina appeared in that sliver of light beyond the door.
“She’s fine.” Halina said tiredly. “She knew you’d come, but she’s fine.”
“We heard her cry out.” I said, putting my foot in the door so she could not close it.
“Your ears are too sharp, Captain. You can go back to sleep. It was just a bad dream.”
I opened my mouth to protest, but I heard Nokomi inside the room call out, “Let him in, Halina.”
Halina looked as if she might argue, but she sighed and stepped aside. She crossed her arms over her chest and waited for Dog and I to pass, so she could close the door behind us.
I’d never been in Nokomi’s chambers before, not really. The room on the other side of the door was a sitting area. A pair of benches sat beside a small table for taking tea, and tapestries hung upon the walls. It was otherwise an unremarkable room.
Curtains divided that from a short hallway, which split off into a dressing room to the right and a smaller room to the left that smelled of clothing: silks, linens, and rich fabrics. At the end of that short hallway was a larger room, much larger than the others. I could feel a cool draft of evening air flowing from that way, so I knew that it must open onto the balcony. That would be her sleeping chamber.
As I entered that room, I noticed Lila getting up to wander sleepily toward the front entry. She yawned tiredly, not even bothering to acknowledge my presence as she passed by to join Halina.
I smiled at that. I could appreciate one who took to sleep so deeply, not that I ever could. Dog and I had been raised on the streets, where you always slept with one eye open, never fully asleep. Like wild animals, we’d had to be ready to run away or defend ourselves at a moment’s notice, and those habits had never really gone away. If anything, they suited the soldier’s life we’d found ourselves in quite well.
I looked around the large room, which was dominated by a large round mattress that was shrouded in netting to keep out biting insects or moths that might be drawn to the candle light that offered the barest amount of light in the corners of the room and near the balcony entrance.
Nokomi shifted inside the netted area, coming into a sitting position with her arms wrapped around her knees. I tilted my head, focusing on her through the netting. I could make out her white sleeping gown again, a strong contrast with her dark hair, and I could see the faintest hint of her eyes.
“Come here.” She bid me.
I cast a glance over my shoulder, noticing Halina watching me still. She frowned at me from the doorway, but said nothing. Dog needed no further invitation. He started forward, searching for a gap between the sheets of netting.
“Over there.” Nokomi said, flicking a spark from her fingertips in the direction of the nearest opening.
I watched the spark float on the air and die on the way to the netting, as did Dog. When it was gone, we moved to the opening, and I pulled it open for Dog. He went in immediately, padding across the wide expanse of mattress toward Nokomi, but I hesitated.
“Take off your boots.” She suggested.
I did that, and crawled in to follow Dog, who’d settled in next to her. She’d already draped an arm companionably over him, and he watched me with a gloating expression on his face as he enjoyed her attention.
“Wicked beast.” I grumbled, working my way across to them.
The mattress was quite large, and I found three distinct impressions upon it, with Nokomi settled in the center one. Halina and Lila clearly slept beside the princess, creating a protective barrier around her while she slept. Those who would seek her for any purpose while she slept would have to get passed the handmaidens.
It brought to mind the heaps of boys and dogs that had slept beside each other during my days in the Kennel. I couldn’t count the number of times I’d woken up to find a foot, tail, or slobbery face right next to mine. Not to mention, Dog and I had used each other as pillows since before I knew how to talk.
I settled in near Nokomi with only Dog between us. I watched her in the low light. Her eyes looked wide and alert.
“What was that spark before? Was that your fire?” She’d threatened to use it a few times in my presence, but I’d never actually seen it used.
I remembered the cut on her hand from the first time we’d met. She’d slit her palm and had been prepared to use her heartfire to burn the desert cat that had attacked. She hadn’t needed to, since Dog and I had dispatched it, but that cut had leaked her blood into the wound on my forehead, and we’d been bonded ever since.
Again, on the second time we’d met, she’d been ready to spill her blood to fight Kalb for our freedom. She’d almost been willing to turn against him with her blood magic, but it hadn’t come to that. Instead, we’d gone off to the Kennel to be trained to serve in her father’s special army, as part of the Emperor’s Dogs.
Nokomi flicked her fingers again, and a spark floated between us, vanishing just short of the tip of my nose. I saw her grinning madly, her face illuminated by the mote of firelight until it faded.
“I keep one fingernail sharp, so I can pierce the tip of my finger. I can flick that tiny drop of blood and create a spark that can light a candle.” She explained.
“Or lead a Dog and an army captain to your bedside.” I observed.
“Or that.” She agreed.
When she grew silent, I asked the question that hung between us unspoken, “Talk to me. What are these dreams that wake you?”
She hesitated at first, but this was why she’d let me in here. She wanted to tell me, even though I could sense the battle inside her. I knew that she must be breaking some unspoken rule to speak of what was on her mind.
“It’s not dreams.”
“Then what is it?”
“It’s the heartfire, Go. It’s growing stronger. I can feel it burning brighter in my veins.”
“Because of your brother’s birth?” It had only been a week since the birth. Could that much have changed already?
She shook her head, her fragrant hair shaking unbound about her shoulders. “No, it’s different than that.”
She pursed her lips, trying to decide how to explain it. “Heartfire is finite. There is only so much of it to go around, or at least that is how I’ve always understood it. Those of us who have it must share it with others in our bloodline, with each of us getting a share dependent on how close we are to the original source. Among our people, my father’s line is strongest with the greatest share. My uncles, aunts, cousins, and more distant relatives receive smaller shares.”
“Like a jug of water shared into different sizes of cups.” I surmised.
She nodded. “Exactly, so with Shapur’s birth, there should be less of it to go around, not more.”
“Because his would be another cup, and being your father’s son, it should be a big cup, and you’re saying that is not true? You feel more fire within you than before? What does that mean?”
“It means that somewhere, members of our family or those bonded to our family are dying.”
My blood ran cold, and my jaw tightened. “Where? Who?”
“I don’t know. That’s what scares me.”
Dog whined between us, and we broke eye contact to focus on the animal for a moment.
“I’m not sure what I can do about this. Your father would know best, and Kalb has reach across this kingdom. He could see to it that everyone is protected. I can’t do anything beyond what I am doing here.”
“I know.” She said softly. Clearly she did not blame me, but she shuddered once more.
“What is it?”
“It’s happening again!” She whimpered. Her skin flushed hot and her eyes glowed warmly. A sweat broke out across her face and neck as she took a greater share of the heartfire magic into herself.
“Someone is hunting your kind.” I surmised. “They want that power to themselves.”
She nodded, biting her lip. “That was stronger, closer. It must have been a cousin or someone stronger. I have never felt that strong of a change before. Go, it has to be murder! When one of our kind slips into death of old age or illness, their power has already faded in the days leading up to their death, so it is a gentle, gradual transition of their power into the collective we share. This is sudden, sharp.”
I suspected Navid immediately, but did not understand his full intent. “If your magic is stronger, so then is that of your father, mother, your sister, and your brother, right? Your uncle as well?”
“Yes, everyone who is left alive will have a greater share of the heartfire. I’m sure that father has felt the change tonight.”
“And what if there was only one of you left?” I asked.
“Why he, or she, would be practically bursting at the seams with heartfire. Their blood magic would be incredibly potent, but the magic does not like that. It would search for a way out. It would hope to spread into connections, as it has with you and I, or into offspring, as it has with Shapur.”
My forehead tingled with our shared bond. “All I can do is protect you.”
She reached across Dog and took my hand in hers. It was feverishly hot, but I did not flinch away. “Stay then. Don’t leave me.”
I glanced back at the doorway, where Halina waited, knife ever at the ready, knowing her. Lila had vanished, and I could easily imagine her sleeping on a bench in the entry or on a settee in the changing room.
A squeeze of my hand brought my attention back to Nokomi. She breathed heavily, beads of perspiration standing out on her forehead. My eyes tracked one as it ran down the back of her jaw, just in front of her ear, riding her skin down to the hollow of her neck, where the fabric of her sleeping gown absorbed it.
She reclined on one side, keeping Dog beside her. I followed her lead, not breaking eye contact or letting her hand go as I sank into the perfumed bed linens. Dog’s wet nose rubbed against my forearm.
“It’s my Uncle Navid, isn’t it?” Nokomi whispered past Dog to me in the near darkness.
“Kalb and I think so.” I admitted. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to share my suspicions with her, but I was loyal to her first and foremost.
Her eyes closed, and she went flat onto her back and breathed out heavily, as if it were a relief to finally be told the truth.
“Your uncle is trying to blame the Kingdom of Arven, saying this is retribution for his taking if Saluud, but it doesn’t all fit. I’m not sure if your father wants to believe it, one way or the other.”
She weighed the two options bitterly. “So it’s either outright war or betrayal.”
“What will we do?” She asked.
“Survive. What else can we do?”
“Can you actually keep us safe from him, if it is him?” She asked. “He controls a good part of the army. There are those who are loyal to him within the palace as well.”
I wasn’t going to lie to her. It was a tall order to save them all. “I will look to your safety first, Nokomi. Then I’ll try to save your mother, brother, and sister.”
“Kalb can protect him. You know that he would ask me to see to his family before I thought of him anyway. I know how he thinks, what his priorities are.”
“If this happens, the palace won’t be safe.”
I nodded. “I know, but there are some that I trust, very few, but there are some I could trust to keep us safe.”
“I’ve never left my home before.” She sounded like a little girl in that moment, one unsure of her future.
“Let’s hope you never have to.” I squeezed her hand reassuringly.
A moment later, she shuddered again with the loss of another family member somewhere across the kingdom and the subsequent gain of more heartfire that accompanied it.
“I’m afraid.” She whispered.
Dog whined, getting up to stare out past the netting toward the night sky. I knew there was nothing there, but he was not one to sit around when a member of the pack was ill at ease. He let himself out of the netting and sat guard, doing his duty.
Nokomi crawled over beside me, bridging the short distance. Our eyes met, mine glowing yellow in the reflection I saw within hers, which glowed red. She pulled her hair back behind her shoulders and settled onto my shoulder, pillowing herself upon me.
My chin rested upon the top of her head, and I breathed in the scent of her hair, accented with the sweat of fear and the potent musk of fire magic that burned through her. Despite what she was going through, I felt more at ease than I could ever remember. I felt a momentary bit of guilt, but let it go. If this was the comfort she required, I would give it.
Somehow, sleep found us both. We rested well, knowing that Dog would watch over us both.
Neema was very much like her sister and yet so very different at the same time.
Neema was taller than Nokomi, although it was yet to be seen if that would hold true forever. Nokomi was certainly taller now than I remembered her, but at eighteen or nineteen years of age, I did not know if she’d reached her full height yet. She likely had, but one never knew. Still, I suspected that Neema would always be at least a little taller than her sister, if slighter of build.
Truthfully, Halina and Neema looked more like sisters than Nokomi and Neema did, except in the eyes. Neema had those same warm eyes as Nokomi, brown with a hint of red, the color of melted chocolate or warm coffee with the sun shining through it.
I would not be unfairly partial to Nokomi if I said that she was prettier than Neema, since most would find Nokomi’s features more pleasing to the eyes. Neema was attractive in her own way, but she paled in comparison to her younger sister, who seemed to grow more beautiful by the day. Neema was intelligent-looking, with observant eyes and a narrow mouth that only opened after she carefully considered her words. Her face was a bit long, and she had a prominent nose, taking more after her father than her mother. Nokomi, on the other hand, had much of her mother’s look about her face, sharing her elegant bone structure and delicate features.
Neema moved with grace, making her a careful presence in any room. Her steps were as light and careful as her words, and her betrothed, Dastan, doted upon her. When his full attention was upon her, she glowed, becoming more attractive. It was strange to watch the two of them together, shining in each other’s presence.
As an official, if yet unannounced, intended husband to the princess, Dastan was allowed into the royal residence for his visits with Neema. Of course, they were still supervised, mostly. Neema was too careful to let anything untoward occur anyway, or so Halina had explained to me.
This was only my second time in the royal residence, but it was my first visit on official business. Uninvited incursions onto the princess’ balcony in the deep hours of the night were generally not considered official business. I smiled, thinking about that. Kalb probably knew of it, seeing as he knew almost everything that happened around the palace. As of yet, he’d chosen not to punish me or confront me about it.
The sitting room we were meeting in was on the ground floor of the royal residence. Generally speaking, outsiders never went above the first floor. Dog and I had already violated that rule apparently.
The room was richly and comfortably decorated. Mosaics had been painted on the walls, scenes of deserts blooming, oases, and studies of wildlife. Dog and I even found a hunting dog like him hiding in a corner of one painting. It was a small detail, but we appreciated his inclusion. We studied the layers of painting, wondered if it had always been there, or if it had been added afterward.
Dozens of potted plants, ferns and flowering shrubs mostly, had been placed around the room to make it feel more lush and peaceful. Water trickled in a fountain to one side, offering more privacy with its gentle noise. A ring of chairs and benches with woven cushions surrounded the fountain, with small round tables placed between them for refreshments.
Neema sat beside Dastan on one bench, hands close but not quite touching. She was beaming at him as he told her a simple story of his morning, something apparently humorous but otherwise commonplace. I didn’t understand the point of the tale, but the two were all looks, smiles, and teeth as he retold the events. It was foolishness, but I found myself unable to stop watching them.
Neema had her own handmaiden, Kamaria, sitting on the bench next to her. She was a somewhat homely girl with an infectious laugh, wide hips, and a prodigious bosom. She covered her mouth with her dainty hands when she laughed, which was frequently and loudly. Everyone liked her instantly, because she had a disarming manner that made her quite easy to like. Dastan’s manservant had certainly taken to her, if his eyes and heartrate were any indication.
“They are something, aren’t they?” Nokomi asked, coming up beside me.
“Kamaria and Dastan’s man?” I asked facetiously. I cracked a smile.
Nokomi frowned at me, shaking her head.
“They are at peace with each other. I envy them.” I admitted, trying hard not to look too long at the gauzy layers of fabric that surrounded Nokomi. They surrounded her like morning mist, disguising but not fully hiding her figure.
Nokomi cast a glance sideways at me, studying my face. I met her gaze. She did not look down or away, as Halina had started to do since learning my true nature. Nokomi was the only one who met my gaze, other than Kalb or the Emperor and Empress. Even many of the other boys from the Kennel, like Legs and the others, had learned to avert their eyes. It was a dominance thing, and they instinctively looked aside first so as not to challenge me. Nokomi wasn’t that way, and I loved it about her.
“It’s the little things…” I explained in a tone just above a whisper, nodding back at Neema and Dastan. “It’s the way he focuses on her mouth when she speaks or meets her eyes and they both break into a grin.”
She snorted a slight laugh. “They’re a bit too much sometimes. They definitely like each other.”
I focused on Dastan, watching him study Neema’s lips. “He’s wondering what her mouth tastes like.”
“He is not!” Nokomi protested, hiding a laugh with her hand.
I leaned over to Nokomi, speaking right next to her ear. “Watch his eyes, his body language. If we were not here, the conversation would be quite different, a lot more physical.”
Nokomi swallowed, and I smiled at the uptick in her heartrate as she studied her sister’s interaction with Dastan. We watched as Dastan’s fingertips inched over to touch Neema’s hand and Neema’s cheeks blushed slightly, only noticeable if you were looking for it.
“You may be right.” She whispered.
I braved the moment, trying to recapture what I’d felt on the balcony. I reached over and took her hand in mine. “Could we ever be like that?”
She stared at me for a long moment, searching for words. Then she looked away, eyes suddenly misty. “Probably not, Go.”
I let her hand go and nodded. Dog shifted unhappily at my side. To his credit, it was Nokomi that was the source of his displeasure. He nudged my leg with his hip, offering a reassuring presence.
“In another world or another time, maybe.” She offered a moment later, softening the blow a little, but a soft touch on the arm could not remove the sting of denial.
I took a breath and stood my ground, observing the room, as was my duty. I’d not been asked here to make advances on Nokomi.
Halina and Lila had accompanied Nokomi to this meeting, extra witnesses to the courtship. They also sat on the benches near Neema and Dastan, and I found that Halina was carefully looking everywhere but at Nokomi and I. She’d definitely seen what had just happened. Neema’s arched eyebrow also seemed to indicate that she’d noticed the exchange. She was astute if nothing else.
“We can’t talk here.” Nokomi whispered, loud enough that only I could hear. She glided away with a smile to join her sister.
Moments later, Dastan had given up his seat to Nokomi, and the two sisters were clasping hands, leaning on each other, and laughing. Dog and I stood apart from the others, never more aware of the gulf between these people and our pack. We were different and always would be. We were watching them, feeling for the first time like we would have given anything to be part of that group, but knowing we could never be.
Dog settled back on his haunches, observing. I did the same, leaning against the wall with the ease I’d learned as a soldier. Given time when little was required of you, one had to learn how to conserve energy. Why stand if you could lean, and why lean if you could sit? Sitting wasn’t exactly guarding though, so I leaned, relaxed but ready to move if needed.
That’s when Dog and I noticed it.
Servants had just arrived with another round of snacks and refreshments. Dog’s nose picked up the savory scents of meat and cheeses and sweets. We caught the scent of berries, a rare treat indeed in this season. The two servers smiled and excitedly described the delicacies they carried on their silver platters.
Dog and I shifted forward a pace, sensing something off. Only one of them wore gloves, although their uniforms were otherwise the same. The one without gloves seemed more anxious, more pleased to be serving. Neema lifted her hand to reach for one of the berries.
“They’re deliciously tart.” The ungloved man said with an obsequious smile.
Dog’s nostrils flared, sensing something foreign. My eyes widened and I threw myself forward with a snarl. With muscles inhumanly strong and reflexes that matched any animal, I hurtled over a plant and a bench, sliding toward the servant. With an animal growl, I slapped the tray aside and, in doing so, sent the servant tumbling over the bench he stood beside. The man went sprawling on the floor, dishes clattering loudly around him. Berries smeared across the floor like dark blood.
It all happened so fast. Neema’s eyes closed involuntarily, and she flinched away. Dastan tried to shield her from whatever was happening, but he was not nearly fast enough. He had one arm around her and the other out to fend me off, but there was nothing he could have done to stop the actual attacker, and less he could have done against me.
Lila and Dastan’s man both stared wide-eyed at me. The other server looked about ready to piss himself, and the dishes rattled on his tray as he trembled nervously. Kamaria’s amiable laugh had turned to a shriek of surprise, Nokomi was screaming at me to stop whatever I was doing, and Halina had drawn her knife protectively.
“Captain Goren!” Nokomi hissed, coming fully into her anger now. She stood and huffed, ready to launch into a tirade against me.
I turned to glare at her, shaking off the fire burning through my scalp as her anger made itself known acutely. Dog barked and lunged after the other server, who’d come to his feet with his own knife drawn even after being knocked down.
I let go completely then.
In mere moments, my teeth elongated under my lips, and my eyes went yellow. The skin of my fingertips parted to let claws tear out. My ears lengthened along with my face, which gave may to coarse fur along my jawline and down my neck. My muscles bulked and tightened, straining under the confines of my clothes; they were like fired steel, waiting to be given shape and direction.
Kamaria’s shrieks turned to fearful screams.
The server-turned-assassin slashed at me with his blade, a feint designed to get me to go on the defensive so he could go after Neema. That might have worked against a normal man. I was anything but normal. I brushed aside his feint and shattered his forearm with a chop of my hand. He cried out and was spun around with the force of my blow. He tried once more to reach for Neema with his good arm, but Dog intercepted him. With a broken arm and Dog’s jaws clamped around his other wrist, the assassin went down, howling in pain.
I crouched over the man, lifting him up by his shirt front. In the state I was in, he was no more heavy to me than a child. Dog let go as I lifted him, his teeth leaving deep punctures in the man’s arm that dribbled blood on the floor.
I snarled in his face, saliva splattering over his cheeks. “Who sent you?” I growled, having trouble forming the words properly with my altered mouth.
He shook his head, refusing to answer. I shook him, repeating my question. Still, he refused to answer. I held him up with my left hand and squeezed his shattered forearm with my right. I felt the broken bones shift under his skin, and he screamed, eyes widening.
At about that moment, dishes clattered to the ground behind me and I smelled fresh urine coming from the other server. Fear sweat was thick in the room, but I ignored it. Snorting a laugh, I threw the man into the corner, tossing him like a ragdoll.
“Get him, Dog.” I nodded my head toward the man and barked.
Dog set upon him as if he were a rabbit or a toy, harrying his limbs as he flailed about and tried to protect himself. Blood sprayed from a dozen wounds before I called him off, and only because I realized that Nokomi was shouting in my ear for me to stop. I’d been so focused on my task that I hadn’t even heard her, not until she took my face in her two hands and made me meet her eyes.
“Go… Stop.” She repeated again and again.
Dog fell back two paces and waited for the man to make a move, any move more than crying in the corner. I noticed that some of his blood had splattered on the murals near where the wild dog had been painted. It lent a sort of poetic accuracy to the painting to have been painted on by the same sort of animal. I laughed maniacally and turned back to Nokomi, confident that the man was no more threat. He certainly wouldn’t walk out of the room.
Only then did I notice the expressions on the others around me.
Dastan was aghast, but he clutched Neema to him protectively, shielding her eyes and face against his chest. His heart hammered in his chest, and I could smell the terror on him. Even so, he had the ability to meet my gaze. He swallowed audibly, to me at least. He had the look of a baby animal staring at its own death.
Halima wore a grim look. Her knife shook in her hand, still held before her. There was this look of surrender in her eyes. She knew she couldn’t stand against something like me, not if I wanted to do her harm, and I scared her. She was the sort that would have fought to her death, even knowing it was inevitable. There was steel in her.
Lila, Kamaria, Dastan’s man, and the other servant all looked at me as if I were a monster, something they wished would disappear from sight.
I ignored them, looking back to Nokomi once more. “This is what I am.” I whispered.
Her hands swept down my face to my shoulders, down my arms, to my hands. She took both of my clawed hands in hers and looked deeply and sadly into my yellow eyes. “I know.”
“There was poison. We could smell it.” I explained.
She nodded. “I believe you.”
“I would do anything to protect you.” I growled, looking back at the assassin with his ruined arms, scratched face, and bleeding legs.
She squeezed my hands with her much smaller ones. Mine were larger anyway, and the clawed tips of my fingers just made it more pronounced. “I know that, Go, but now you need to leave. The guards will be here to take care of our attacker. We don’t want any misunderstandings when they arrive. Halina and I can watch that man until they get here.”
“But…” I started to protest.
“I’m your princess, Captain Goren. Listen to my orders.”
I let the beast slide away then, shifting back toward my humanity. Dog still stood guard over the would-be assassin.
“Leave.” Nokomi ordered, her expression and tone offering no other course.
Dog and I left, listening to Nokomi bark orders to all still present that they were not to speak of what they’d just seen, none of it. It struck me then that Nokomi, even though she was the younger sister, had taken command of the situation. I was proud of her.
Yet, I wondered how this would play out, and I retreated to my residence, where I waited for my next audience with Emperor Baraz and Minister Kalb. I knew would not have to wait long, not after what had just happened.
Suitors. What a horrible thing. A truly terrible thing.
I forced myself to be at ease, wearing my guard’s uniform and sitting across the garden from where Nokomi was entertaining her guest. This was the third one in five days. I hated them all for no reason other than they were here to see her.
Dog shifted at my feet as I pretended to work on notes and orders. For the previous two suitors, I’d made an attempt to appear as a scribe, but the guise had worn thin on me, so I appeared as a guard today, staying at a safe distance. Even so, my ears easily overheard every word that passed between Nokomi, her handmaidens, and her suitors. It was all I could do to not stare at each of these men with hateful looks, so I tried to appear otherwise occupied.
In truth, I was trying to draw Nokomi’s face as I remembered it from our meeting on the balcony a few nights ago, but I was no artist. I could not catch the delicate features of her face or the soulful expression of her eyes. Nor could I get the balance of her lips and nose correct. Anything I created looked like a poor imitation of her at best. It was nearly as hopeless a task as watching these rich and powerful men fawn over the princess, someone who was clearly a prize to be won.
She was not that to me. She was part of a pack, a family unit. We were to be together, in one way or another, but our roles here kept her apart from us. The situation was every bit as bitter as Kalb had told me it would be, but worse. Experiencing it was proving to be far more terrible than hearing it described.
And, there was something different about this one. This suitor, Bijan, was better than the others. I’d happened across another few potential suitors in the palace, screening them prior to them meeting the princess. I’d shared my thoughts of them with her, letting her know which ones bragged of their aspirations, hopes, and dreams for joining with her. Many of the men put on gentle and polite faces in front of her, but their true aspirations were far more lewd and greedy.
Not so with this one named Bijan. For all my attempts to overhear him saying something improper or give some indication that he was not as pure in his motives as he seemed, I’d found nothing. Even when the other potential suitors tried to get him involved in their bawdy jests of forthcoming conquests, he said nothing, excusing himself from their company instead. They all thought less of him for it, but it made me that much more wary of him, for he seemed a truly decent man.
I refused to like him, no matter how fine a person he appeared to be. Even the respectful tones with which he spoke to Halina and Lila were not faked. If he was false in any way, I’d have heard it. I could feel a lie and hear an untruth if spoken. He was nothing but honest with the girls, and he was a gentleman as well. It didn’t hurt that he was far more handsome than I could hope to be.
I had a wild look about my features. It didn’t matter if I shaved, wore a beard, cropped my hair, or put on different clothes – there was always something off about me. My eyes couldn’t fully hide what I was. I might play the part of a human well enough, but you always saw a hint of something not quite domesticated in my eyes. Once you saw it, you couldn’t unsee it. It would nag at you, and you’d always see me as something animal.
Halina had started to pick up on it. I could tell by her expression when she looked at me. I frequently caught her starting at me, trying to figure me out. Leaping from a high balcony and running faster than a normal person could possibly run had certainly done very little to dispel any notions that I was normal.
Nokomi had never minded my nature. She’d always seen me for what I was, going all the way back to our first bloody meeting in the alley all those years ago. There had been no mistaking that I was a wildling, more beast than boy. Growing up had just made me into a bigger, more dangerous animal.
So, I watched Bijan’s fine features, rich but subdued clothes, and graceful manners from across the garden, sitting on my stone bench. Dog was my companion, and this interloper was being entertained by the woman I wanted.
I’d realized it. I’d admitted it to myself, much to Dog’s relief. I was not hiding from it anymore. I just didn’t know how to make it true in this life. I’d been all bravado when I’d told Kalb I’d fight the world for her if she wanted me, but I didn’t know how to go about asking her to do the same for me.
After the better part of an hour of exchanging pleasantries, Bijan dismissed himself, bowing deeply. He touched Nokomi’s hand then, placing it softly between his two hands. Respectful as he was, he did not kiss the back of her hand with his lips, as the others before him had done. No, he was ever cautious with our Nokomi.
Dog stood and growled at this contact, sensing him as a true rival for her attentions. I didn’t chastise him. In truth, I found my own teeth bared as well, and my ink quill snapped in my hand.
Bijan turned toward the source of the noise. His dark eyebrows rose above his insightful eyes, and I quickly closed my mouth, trying to hide my anger with a smile that was hardly convincing. Halina covered her mouth, eyes dancing with amusement. Nokomi’s was far less amused.
“Princess.” Bijan said, swiftly covering his surprise with a smile and another bow.
He made his way from the garden then, eyeing me once very briefly. He wanted me to know that he was taking note of me, but did not view me in a threatening fashion, as if I were of little consequence. In his eyes, I was probably just a guardsman, as my uniform suggested. Dog glared back at him, though my cheeks burned.
Nokomi left the garden with Lila, casting a disappointed look our way as she departed. Halina begged to stay behind and clean up, though there were others who would do that. Her excuse was flimsy, but Nokomi did not challenge it.
After they’d left, Halina strolled over to me, her hand on her hip and her expression imperious. It was almost comical to me, because she had none of the princess’ bearing. It was an emulation of more powerful women, but the walk was anything but perfected.
“Captain Goren.” She sniffed and looked around, as if studying the weather. Aloof didn’t work, not when she couldn’t keep her eyes from my sketches.
I hastily tried to cover them up, realizing what she was looking at, but she moved with surprising swiftness, dropping onto the bench beside me and grabbing the first one she saw.
“These are not badly done, Captain!” She studied the drawing in her hands.
“Really?” I asked.
“What is it, a flying squirrel?” She asked in complete seriousness.
I frowned at her as she burst out laughing. The teasing was well delivered, and I couldn’t help but smile after a moment, even if it was at my cost. “You heard that the other night?”
“I’m a light sleeper. I’m the princess’ protector, so I can’t snore like Lila and let strange men pester the princess at night without any notice. Although, you did have arrive rather quietly and from a surprising direction.” She admitted.
I grinned at that, forgiving her for mocking my artwork. “And Bijan, will you have to protect her from him?”
She shook her head. “I think not. He would not so much as look at her uninvited. He is too kind by far.”
I wasn’t so sure as that. “He is a good man, the only one I’ve met among all of those that seek her hand.”
“That’s why he won’t win.” Halina said with complete certainty, meeting my eyes with her very blue ones.
“Why?” I asked. Perhaps she knew more of these things than I.
Dog sought out Halina’s hands, forcing his muzzle against them. She laughed and played with his round ears. “Because a princess, especially one like Nokomi, needs someone with fire in them, some forcefulness. By being challenged, she will grow to her full potential. Only someone who wished for her and her offspring to never be a threat would match her with such a polite man.”
That made sense. Nokomi was a lioness, fierce at heart and proud. Bijan was graceful and careful, like a gazelle. It would not be a strong match, despite my initial concerns. But, General Navid might push her toward such a match, if he worried her sons might challenge his place. Isn’t that what had happened with her older sister Neema? Hadn’t Nokomi described him as sweet and gentle?
Halina studied the change in my expression. “You are completely besotted with her, aren’t you?”
“Absolutely.” I admitted openly, hand going to my face. I could feel her fire running through my skin. It made my left eye water.
Halina’s hand reached out to touch my forehead. “You’re burning up, feverish.”
I took her hand gently and placed it back on her lap. “I always run warm.”
She looked from Dog to me. She’d just had a hand on both of us at the same time. “You’re just as warm as he is.” A look dawned on her face, and she stood suddenly, heart racing.
“Halina.” I reached out, pulling her back down to my side.
She shivered under the touch of my warm hand, but I let her go. Dog whined, so she resumed petting him with both hands. He, at least, she still trusted. Dog had never hidden his nature from her, but she still eyed me warily. “What are you, Captain?”
“Everything you suspect, I’d wager, and more.” I replied. I wasn’t about to give her the particulars.
“That’s how you could do those things, jump and run and bark… The stories she told of you and Dog, they make so much more sense now.”
I flashed my teeth at her in a smile, though I refrained from growing my teeth or letting my eyes go yellow. Her eyes fell shyly, submissively. I had to admit, I missed the confidence and curiosity she’d met my gaze with just moments before.
“I serve your princess, Halina. That’s all you need to worry about. I will never let any harm befall her.”
“I believe you, but I fear what might happen to those who cross your path…” She met my gaze once more, and I could hear the trust in her voice. “May the Gods save any that get in your way.”
She believed me, and that was good, for there was no more important thing to me than protecting Nokomi. If Halina believed that she and I had the same goals, we could work together to protect her.
“Things are changing, Halina. I can often sense her, but I don’t always know exactly how she feels. Nor can I always be at her side, but I am never more than a shout or a call away. Get word to me if something ever happens, and I will be there as fast as I my legs can carry me. No obstacle will stand in our way.”
“But what of your secret?” She asked, wondering if I was willing to expose what I was just to protect Nokomi.
“I would rather everyone knew what I was than see any harm come to her. We are pack, she and I.” There was no doubt about that.
“Would that I had one so dedicated to me.” She whispered sadly.
I smiled at that, but had no advice or wisdom for her on the subject. I only knew what I wanted, and that was enough for now.
I couldn’t sleep. Dog tossed and turned restlessly beside me, a mirror of my own uneasiness. Meeting with Legs should have left me feeling happier, not more unsettled. I had enjoyed catching up with him, reflecting on the past, even the sadder parts of it. Yet, I couldn’t help thinking about the future. That was what had me worried.
I began pacing, ignoring Dog’s whine when I made it impossible for him to sleep. Even in the dark and quiet, Dog would not sleep much if I was up and moving. In the dark, he met my gaze, and we both decided to go for a walk.
It was deep in the night, and much was quiet. The noises from neighboring houses had died hours ago. There was nothing but the whisper of our feet upon the gravel. I’d switched to quieter shoes instead of boots, and Dog knew how to move quietly. He was a wild animal, born for stalking and hunting prey, and I was able to draw on those skills to move more silently than a normal person could.
The sky was nearly cloudless, other than a few grey tufts that tried in vain to obscure the moon. The moon’s light seemed to split into four beams that formed a cross spreading through the grey sky. Dawn was perhaps two hours away, and there was little in the way of light around the palace, other than a few candles in windows or fires at guard stations placed periodically around the walls.
As there was little in the way of light, there was very little activity in the palace as well. I knew there’d be cooks already getting up to prepare morning meals soon, servants getting clothes ready for their masters’ days, and guards patrolling. Otherwise, there was only the silence of the sleeping city. In an hour, more would be stirring, but for now, Dog and I had the grounds to ourselves.
We slipped from building to building, moving within the shadows. I kept my eyes from any light sources, so I could preserve my night vision, which was sharp, nearly as sharp as Dog’s own, especially when I let the beast take my eyes and things came in more clearly.
That was a trick I’d learned in the years since I’d been at the Kennel. I’d honed my abilities so that I could allow my animal side to take just parts of my body at a time. I didn’t have to go all out. Instead, I could let my fingertips grow into claws while otherwise appearing human. Or, I could let my eyes take Dog’s abilities. I’d even grown my teeth once or twice, just for effect. In the right lighting or situation, having fangs and sharp ears could do much to intimidate or confuse an enemy. Often, that was all the time one needed to send a blade into their guts or running across their throat. Morbid thoughts for morbid times.
I smiled and drifted across the grounds, wandering in a direction I did not first understand, but should have. We reached the wall of the private lake garden, and I did not hesitate there. Dog knew what I planned, and probably had known before I knew it myself. He was a dog, not given to confusing inner dialogues and self-deceptions, so he knew the truth of things and how to live in the moment.
I knelt down, allowing Dog to get a running start. He easily vaulted up off of my shoulders and cleared the wall. It was not much for me to get over it myself. I only needed a couple steps back to get enough momentum, and then I leaped to the top of the wall, dropping back down on the other side without pause. A man standing on top of at wall gains attention, even in the middle of the night.
Dog and I hugged the inside of the wall, clinging to the shadows. No one could have seen us, not unless they had senses as keen as our own, and there were very few people in the palace grounds like us. Our steps brought us silently and swiftly to the pavilion where we’d taken tea with Nokomi.
Dog sniffed at the cushions and chairs, catching hints of her scent more recent than the last we’d met with her. There were other familiar scents mixed in as well, mostly of Halina and Lila, but also of the Empress Anahita.
My nose twitched at the scent of a man. I frowned, taking another deep pull of the scent. I did not know this one. It was not from Kalb or the Emperor. Unbidden, my mind conjured images of suitors fawning over Nokomi, taking meals with her and engaging in flattering discourse. I growled low in my throat. Dog just looked at me, as if to ask me what I was going to do about it.
In that moment, I believe I took leave of my senses. Sometimes that’s all it takes, just a single decision in a moment of weakness or strength.
I felt a tingle on the back of my neck, and I turned. There were candles lit in the royal residence. On a balcony along the lower dome, I saw wispy curtains part and a figure in pale bedclothes emerge. Lit by moonlight and a pair of flames on standing candelabras, I could just make out who it was.
Dog and I made for the walls. I led the way until we were close, and he ran straight for me. I gave him a leg up, tossing him easily over the walls. This time, I didn’t even bother to get a running start. I let my nature go and used claws to dig into the walls, pulling myself upward with ease. I made the top of the wall in mere moments and stood there, carelessly unworried about anyone noticing me this time. No, I wanted to be noticed, if only by her.
The tingle on the back of my neck deepened. It rose into my scalp until all of my hair felt as if it were standing on end. The hair on my arms rose, too, goosebumps forming on my arms, even if I was not the least bit cold.
Across the distance, our eyes met. I knew she’s seen me. She stood and waited, neither waving me off or beckoning me. I didn’t care. Meeting her gaze was invitation enough. I vaulted down from the wall and hit the ground running.
A taller wall surrounded the residence, ringing in the rounded building and its four corner towers. This wall was crenelated, with arrow slots and murder holes. They made great handholds for one such as I. Dog had little more trouble than I did. His paws found these spots perfect for boosting himself up to the next foothold, and we topped the wall, landing on its walkway.
Guards were patrolling this wall, but they were no more aware of us than they were the night birds that sailed overhead. I smiled, crossed the few paces of walkway, and descended the inside of the wall. Once I was at the bottom, Dog fearlessly leaped down to me. I caught him and lowered him to the ground.
We waited for the guards to complete their circuit, hiding in the shadows at the base of a tower. Then, we crossed the courtyard and came to a stop beneath Nokomi’s balcony. She looked down at us, not in surprise, but amazement. A grin crossed her face when I signaled for her to remain quiet.
I looked back and forth, finding plenty of handholds for me, but none that would suit Dog. I could easily scale the vines growing on the trellis to either side of her balcony. They were terrible planning in terms of security, I thought, but it worked for me. Clearly, they expected the other levels of defense to be unbreachable, so they did not worry if a flowering vine offered someone access to the royal residence.
Dog looked at me expectantly, and I nodded. It was easily twice my height to the bottom of the balcony, and the railing was chest high. I took a deep breath and grabbed Dog, one hand at the hindquarters, the other steadying him under his chest. A gasp escaped Nokomi’s eyes as she realized what I was doing. She looked to protest, but I didn’t give her the chance.
Taking a couple steps back first, I surged forward, heaving Dog up like a javelin, tossing him with all of my might. His legs pawed at the air as he sailed up and over the rail. He landed with the skittering of claws across the tiled floor.
Nokomi’s eyes were wide, and she bit her lip to hold off a scream. Laughing silently, I ran to the wall, pushing up off of it with my feet and springing upward. I grasped the bottom of the balcony near her feet and pulled myself up. I reached the top of the railing and swung my legs over, dropping softly onto the other side next to her.
“Go!” She hissed, eyes so beautifully wide and angry. But, it was the anger of fear, fear that something could have happened to us.
I shrugged and Dog yipped excitedly. “He likes it.”
“Dogs were not meant to fly.”
“It was more of a glide.” I replied, illustrating that fact with an arching motion of my hand. “Like these squirrels I once saw in my travels. They can glide safely down from a tree, or go branch to branch. They’re really quite amazing.”
She stared at my incredulously, crossing her arms over her chest. “And did you really just risk death and injury to sneak onto the princess’ balcony in the middle of the night to tell me about squirrels?”
My eyes narrowed, focusing on her face, looking away from the candle light and straight into her warm, inviting eyes. Her breath hitched, and I could see the rapid thrum of her pulse in her neck and the rise and fall of her chest beneath the linen sleeping gown she wore.
“Maybe.” I grinned wolfishly, suddenly aware of the heady scent of her hair, unbound and casting its scent into the light breeze. I’d never seen it hanging loose before, and I found that I liked the sight of it as it surrounded her face and fell down her shoulders in dark waves. I inhaled, closing my eyes for a moment.
“You are so strange.” She whispered, hand seeking out mine. Her pulse pounded in her fingertips. “Yet, I feel like I understand you.” Dog’s wet muzzle found her other hand. “Both of you.”
I pressed the back of her hand to my cheek. “It is because we are pack. We have been since that day so long ago.”
“Our blood mixed.” She said, understanding. Her fingertips worked their way across my jaw. “It is the way of my people. We can join others to us, so we always know what they are doing. We can share their feelings and know them deeply. It is only done with our most trusted friends and advisors.”
“It is the same with Dog and I. We share senses and thoughts.”
“And you are sharing with me, also. My own nose is sharper than before. I’ve noticed smells I never could have before you and Dog arrived. My eyes are sharper as well. I can see farther and more clearly in the dark.”
That surprised me. I’d always been able to feel her, but I’d never thought that one without the Old Blood could share the benefits of our bond. I marveled over that revelation and the scent of her skin. I found my teeth gently scraping at the back of her knuckles.
“We are pack.” She whispered, biting the inside of her cheek as I explored her wrist.
“That’s why I had to come.” I murmured against the inside of her arm. “I could not sleep, and I was unable to stop thinking about you, about your uncle’s return, and all of what it meant. I fear for your safety, and I am across the grounds. I did not know where you rooms were or how to get to you if you were ever in danger.”
“You certainly found me.” She laughed softly.
“And other scents I found in the places you frequent... They disturbed me.”
She withdrew her hand. “What do you mean?”
I yearned to have her hand back, but it was clenched at her side. “There was the smell of another man down at the pavilion. It was not Kalb and not your father.”
She looked at me with genuine confusion.
“I wondered if it was a suitor? I thought I was to be told of all of those meetings, but I must not have been told of one?” The words spilled jealously from my tongue. Dog eyed me in warning.
“That must have been Dastan. Other than my father or guards, he is about the only other man that ever goes there.” She said, perhaps a bit coolly.
“Dastan?” I had not yet heard this name.
“My sister’s betrothed. Neema’s consort-to-be.” Nokomi explained.
I stared at her for a long moment. She averted her gaze, looking uncomfortable as I studied her features. Dogs will do that, too, and it’s a habit I’ve picked up from them. They are not afraid to stare at a person for a long while, if it holds their interest or if they perceive it as a threat. Normal people will usually break my gaze first. They are uncomfortable with more than a few seconds of unbroken eye contact.
“Your sister is to be married?” I asked.
She nodded, taking the slightest step away from me. She rested her elbows on the railing and resumed her gaze out at the moonlit lake beyond the walls. “The marriage agreement was just formalized before you arrived, but the news has not yet been released. It was going to be released soon, but then my Uncle Navid arrived, and it did not seem like the proper time for such an announcement.”
Dog sat patiently, waiting for me to smooth things over. Somehow, I’d gotten off track, and he knew it. I’d went from a tender moment to a family discussion, and I wasn’t sure how to get back.
“How do you feel about that? I’ve not yet met your sister. I wonder about her and this man she has chosen.”
“Chosen?” Nokomi sniffed and turned her eyes my way. “Chosen for her is closer to the truth, although they do seem to genuinely like each other. Dastan is a sweet and gentle man.” She looked away, pursing her lips and frowning.
“How lucky for her.” I didn’t know what else to say. Her description of Dastan painted him as an exact opposite of me. What was I, but a beast in a man’s guise? I doubted that I’d ever been sweet or gentle.
“My sister could do worse.” Nokomi agreed.
“Nokomi…” I started, but had no words. I put my hands on the railing beside her, remembering our meeting at the pavilion.
She smiled sadly at me, but she did not put her hand on top of mine this time. “I know.”
I didn’t know what she knew. I didn’t know what I knew. Dog was probably the only one of the three of us that knew what he knew and how he felt. Unfortunately, I did not have the clarity he did, or the time to make things clear.
I heard a whisper of feet, and turned quickly to find Halina yawning as she regarded the two of us. I heard another sleeping deeper in the room, likely Lila.
“Mistress?” Halina asked questioningly, as if I might be a threat.
I felt a pang at that, a small stab of the heart. I eyed the other girl, wishing she’d not appeared.
“It’s fine, Halina.” Nokomi said tiredly. “Captain Goren was just leaving. Could take him down the north stairs and see him out?”
“Yes, mistress.” She continued to stare at Dog and I, clearly wondering how we’d gotten in without notice.
I stared at Nokomi, trying to meet her eyes once more. Perhaps my eyes would relay my truth where words had failed me. She chose not to look up at me though, turning away instead and walking to Halina’s side.
I looked at the two of them dressed alike in their sleeping dresses, so similar they might be sisters, but so different. Halina’s straight hair fell like a curtain, where Nokomi’s had a wave to it, curling near her ears and along her forehead. They were only a few finger widths difference in height, and Nokomi had slightly wider shoulders and hips, making her look older than Halina, despite being of a similar age.
Growling, I snapped my fingers and Dog came to my side. Halina’s eyes grew wide as she realized what I was about to do, but couldn’t believe it. I put my left hand on the rail and threw myself over it, landing just a moment later on the ground.
I backed up and snapped my fingers once more. There came the skittering of nails on tile once more, a stifled cry of surprise from Halina, and then Dog came sailing over the railing. I took another step back, gauging Dog’s trajectory. I dipped my arms as I caught him, so as not to jar him too sharply.
His round ears perked up and his muzzle broke into what could only be described as a dog’s grin. I shook my head, keeping a laugh to myself. Once more, we cast our eyes back toward the balcony to where the two women had been joined by a third, Lila.
The three women watched us disappear with different expressions on their faces: Halina’s full of wonder, Lila’s full of sleepy curiosity as to what she’d missed, and Nokomi’s full of sadness and longing.
The sky was lightening, and I had no more time. I needed to be with her, but our duties were conspiring to keep us apart. How long, too, before her Uncle worked to keep us apart?
Dog and I faded into the night, working our way unseen through the gates as the guard changed. It was exhilarating to sneak around, but that was a poor balm on my aching heart.
The two of us cast off into a fitful sleep for an hour before dawn, and then we got up to be about our duty.
Four days passed with surprising swiftness and also with agonizing slowness.
I used every spare moment to memorize the layout of the palace, which four days was not nearly enough time to do. Kalb’s signet ring allowed me access to most areas in the main palace, but there were so many outbuildings, small gardens, and walled-off areas that I just could not memorize them all so swiftly. Only time would fully allow me to acclimate myself to this new place. For now, I had to settle with knowing the major landmarks and areas, while learning the smaller details as I went.
Except, would I even have the time I needed? Kalb required me to know the ins and outs of the entire palace complex if I was to be able to sneak about and carry out his will. On the third day, he showed up at my small home in the middle of the night and made me draw the entire palace in accurate scale, at least what I could remember of it, from memory.
He did not let on if he was impressed or unimpressed by what I’d managed to learn thus far, although he smiled briefly at the fact that I’d found and labeled no less than twelve places to take a meal. What could I say? My nose and stomach drove me, and it was the memories of certain smells, sounds, and tastes that helped me remember what I knew so accurately. Each thing I associated with a sense became more concrete in my mind.
I knew that there was a specific type of jasmine incense used by one of the advisors in the western hallway. I knew which guard stations served the best food and the strongest liquor, by both taste and smell. There was a lovely assistant to the head scribe that always smelled like him, as well as sandalwood candles. One of the gardens had flowering lemon trees. I knew all these things and more, because our senses drove us.
Just before midday on the fourth day, Halina reappeared, once more alone at my door. I recognized her heartbeat, not her scent. This time, she smelled of almonds and cream. Her skin was particularly savory-smelling and supple-looking in the morning light.
“Do you like it?” She asked, and her eyes twinkled as my nose twitched at her new scent.
“It is pleasant.” I offered neutrally, while Dog sneezed beside me, his tail wagging happily. “What of Nokomi? Where is she?”
“Follow me.” That was all she said, but she sounded disappointed.
Dutifully, I followed with Dog at my side as she led into another walled section of the palace grounds that I’d not yet had a chance to explore. We walked to the north side of the royal residence, where we found another walled-in area that was nearly the side of the courtyard that the officials and folk of the palace enjoyed. This one was more exclusive, meant only for the royal family and those they entertained.
This private area was mostly dominated by a lake that was clearly man-made - its edges were so straight and even, and its depth was so uniform. A large pavilion sat on the southern shore, within eyesight of the two northern towers of the royal residence, as well as the tall turret atop the domes. There were two small islets in the lake, each not much bigger than the footprint of my modest little home. Each held a flowering tree, a few spindly shrubs, and a collection of water birds that spooked when Dog barked at them from the shore.
I stopped and stared, dumbfounded by the expanse of water that stood before me. Living in the alleys as a child, I’d never seen much more than a puddle after a rainstorm or a public fountain for drawing water. At the Kennel, I remember marveling over a bathing room that held a pool of water barely a fraction the size of this lake. Even in my travels as a soldier, I’d never beheld more than a watering hole in the desert or a narrow riverbed, more often running with mud than clear water. Yet here was a mass of water that was simply staggering to me.
Halina smiled to watch me stare. “Your mouth is hanging open. Have you never seen a lake before?”
I glanced at her, shaking my head before turning back to the lake. I knelt at its edge and put my hand into it. Dog sniffed at the water beside me and lapped at the warm water.
“Dogs will drink anything.” Halina remarked without judgement.
“Some people, too.” I slurped a handful of water just to get a rise out of her. My stomach was quite sturdy, and I had no fear of the water making me sick.
Halina winced at my choice of refreshment and nodded toward the pavilion on the edge of the lake. “Nokomi is waiting, with tea. It tastes much better than pond water.”
“Lead on.” I suggested, standing once more. Water was interesting, but Nokomi was much more interesting.
My eyes went to the pavilion, where I could make out Nokomi reclining on a bench beside a table filled with dishes. Lila stood beside her, waiting patiently for Halina to return with me. The sound of them talking filtered across the water to my ears, but I could not make out what they said, at least not until we got closer.
Lila noticed our approach first, although I believe that Nokomi felt us arrive before she indicated that she knew we were here. Just as I felt my forehead flush, I knew that she would know of my presence without having to see or hear us. Dog whined excitedly, feeling her nearby.
Now that we were all well aware of each other, I saw Nokomi stand and look our way. She waited there patiently, allowing us to approach this time. I’ll admit that I was a little disappointed that she didn’t rush over to throw a second embrace our way, but I understood it. She had a level of decorum to maintain. I was a soldier, and she was the princess.
“Princess Nokomi.” I sketched a bow upon arrival, ascending the three steps quickly to be near her.
“Captain Goren.” Nokomi was decidedly cool, but beautiful regardless.
I kept trying to meet Nokomi’s gaze, but her eyes kept slipping away. I felt a pang, but tried not to let it show. I cast a look Halina’s way, but her face was a careful mask, though I knew she was observing me.
At least Nokomi greeted Dog enthusiastically when he crossed the distance between us. He enjoyed the attention, startling the timid Lila as he barked excitedly and set his tail to smacking the poor handmaiden on the legs. Lila let out a little shriek and backed away, falling onto a cushioned lounge. I smiled, but took Nokomi’s cue to not be too forward, and decided to take a look around instead.
The pavilion was about fifteen paces on a side and perfectly square. About half of it was built over the water, with pilings sinking down into the clear water toward piles of white stones on the bottom of the lake, which was about half again as deep as I was tall. The water was clear and pleasant-looking, with fish swimming around placidly.
A waist-high railing ran around the whole pavilion, except where the stairs on the southern side allowed entrance to the covered area. Each of the balusters that connected the floor to the rail had been carved to look like different water birds or fish. Every piece of wood gleamed with the oils that had been worked into the grains of the wood, preserving it from the weather and sun. The structure was well-made, with careful joints and clean lines. Even the rafters above me were masterfully joined and kept clean of bird nests.
“Do you like it?” Halina asked. “The birds, the fish, the calm water… It is very calming.”
I looked at her, watching Nokomi watching us out of the corner of her eyes. Was she doing all the talking on purpose? Was this what it would mean to be close to Nokomi? Would we forever be talking through someone, rather than to each other?
“It is a wonder, this place. I have never seen so much water.” I moved to railing at the edge of the pavilion, past the sitting area and the food and drink assembled on the table.
Dog scampered over and stuck his face between the balusters. He barked at the fish he saw in the water, that or his reflection upon the glassy water. Dog and I stood there for a long moment, saying nothing.
“It is one of my favorite places in this whole cage we call a home.” Nokomi said with no small measure of sadness in her voice as she took a place a few paces away along the railing on our right.
“It was a wonder that I was allowed in the palace the other day to greet you.”
“Her mother scolded her.” Halina whispered into my left ear quietly, smirking until Nokomi shot her a warning glance. Halina retreated to Lila’s side.
I stood at the rail, hands on the smooth wood, taking the soft breeze upon my face, cooling the soft burn I felt from both the sun and Nokomi. “I understand duty, princess.”
“I suppose you do, after all of these years…”
Nokomi was suddenly right beside me, looking out across the water. Her eyes stayed on the nearest of the small islands, where birds with long, curved beaks stalked the water’s edge, looking for minnows or other small food. I watched them also, until I felt something brush against my hand.
I swallowed and looked down at her hand, resting upon the railing, palm up and ever so slightly touching mine. I saw a small white scar upon her palm from the same cut that had leaked its blood into my forehead, bonding us together as children. Our eyes met.
My throat tightened. My skin felt aflame. That cool burn that had been contained to my face was now raging through my veins. I felt heat from her skin pour across the narrow space between us. Dog suddenly sat very alert between us, looking up at our faces.
“What did my mother ask of you?” Nokomi whispered, knowing I could not keep the truth from her when I was lost in her eyes.
“She wanted me to spy on your suitors. I’m to protect you from them, but also observe and offer my opinions of them to her.” I whispered back.
I did not feel that I was betraying either Kalb or the Empress. Nokomi and I were pack, and my allegiance was ever to her first, and others later. I would never harm her.
“And my father?” She asked.
“He asked me to do what Kalb wishes of me in order to protect and serve your family.” I answered. I swallowed and asked the question that tickled at my tongue. “And what would you ask of me, princess? How can I serve you?”
Nokomi took a breath the speak, but stopped. Her brow wrinkled in consternation. She licked her lips, thought better of it, and broke away from my eyes.
I heard a clatter of dishes behind us. Halina and Lila were very much watching us, but they made a show of setting up tea. The tea had already been set up before, so it was clearly just something to keep their hands busy.
Nokomi placed her hand atop mine, and I turned back to her in surprise. “I would have you be a true friend to me, Go.”
“Always, princess.” I smiled. “It is what I have always wished since the day we met. It is what I have worked all these years to get back to you for.”
Her earlier anxieties faded, and she warmed me with one of her rarest smiles, one of those that lit up the day. She led me over to the sitting area, and the four of us spoke at length of palace life, of the places I’d seen in my travels, and of her family.
Lila spoke at length only once, retelling a story that had both the princess and Halina laughing until they clutched at each other with tears in their eyes and could hardly breathe. Lila spoke rarely, but she had a keen eye for detail and was a great study of a person’s traits and habits. She could imitate people and tell a story in such a detailed manner that made you feel as if you’d been there.
Dog dined on bread and treats that the girls fed him, teaching him a trick where he held a scrap on his nose for as long as he could, and then he had to snap it up before it hit the ground. He put up with their little game, because it was the most attention he’d had in weeks, as well as some of the best little pieces of meat either of us had ever tasted. I’d never known him to be such an attention-hog, and I feared he would be spoiled by our time in the palace, but I let him get away with it.
When the meeting was over, the midday meal bells had long since rung, and we left with a promise to meet again sometime soon. Dog and I retreated to our home, memorizing the layout of this new piece of the palace grounds, but palace maps were not so memorable as the tingling reminder of Nokomi’s hand upon on my own.
I’d been assigned a small set of quarters in a small cluster of tiny homes for scribes that was located between the palace and the royal residence. There were eight of these little houses together in two rows of four, surrounded by gravel lanes and small shrubberies that did little to distract from the fact that these were small boxes, rooms with roofs for people just important enough to be close to the palace but not enough to have a fancy residence. I didn’t care. Dog and I had need for little more than a dry piece of ground to sleep on, as we’d often demonstrated in the last few years.
Still, it was mine for the time being, so we explored it, finding it suitable to our needs. There was one entry, a sliding wooden door that faced south. Two shuttered windows, one on the east side and one on the west, admitted enough light and fresh air to make it pleasant enough. A cot was placed in one corner of the single room, and a mattress had been placed on the stone floor, likely for Dog. A small table was against the north wall, along with a basin for washing up and a jug for drawing water. I’d seen a well not far from the little home, so getting water would be easy enough.
A simple writing desk stocked with writing supplies was on the wall beneath the eastern window, not that I planned to write many messages, but it would help maintain the idea that I was a scribe, of all things. A leather satchel for carrying ink, parchment, and quills had been left hanging on a peg beside the desk, along with a scribe’s uniform. I frowned at it, for the identity as a soldier was very much part of who I was. Perhaps the lie, the illusion of being a scribe would work in some situations, but I did not relish the thought.
It was not yet sunset, but it felt late. I searched a small shelf in the corner, finding tallow candles and a broom. Military life had left me with a tidy nature. I didn’t mind cleaning up after myself. That left only food to worry about. I could feel the pangs of hunger Dog was sending out.
The jug beside the wash basin already had water in it. I sniffed it, finding it clean enough to drink, and poured some in the basin for Dog. He lapped at it briefly, taking his fill. Afterward, I used it to wash the dust from my face, feeling grit fall away from my eyebrows and under my jaw. I dried my face on the towel provided, and glanced over at Dog, who gave me a look.
“This is home now.” I explained, not that I needed to.
He looked unimpressed and decided to explore the sleeping area. For a moment, I thought he’d take the cot and leave the mattress to me, but he settled onto the mattress after circling around on it twice. I snorted a laugh and shuffled over to fall beside him.
“I can’t believe we finally met her again. We waited years for this.” I smiled at the memories, and Dog licked my hand. “I know, right?”
I looked into his expressive eyes and tweaked one of his ears. He growled and bit at my hand playfully. That, of course, quickly became a wrestling match that ended up with both of us covered in hair and slobber, with me laughing and him panting and whining.
I was about to say something when I caught a scent of something through the western window, carried on the wind. Dog and I both turned that way, eyes narrowing. That was Nokomi’s perfume.
Had she sought us out so soon? I scrambled to my feet, realizing that I looked a mess. I hastily brushed the dog hair from my uniform, straightened my hair, and brushed some of Dog’s slobber from my forearm onto the back of my jacket.
Moments later, a knock sounded on the door. I shared an excited look with Dog and struggled to keep myself from running to the door. Instead, I walked at a careful, measured pace. I would meet her with decorum this time, greeting her properly this time.
I slid the door aside, my sharp ears picking up on the heartbeat on the other side of the door. I opened my mouth to offer my greetings, but the words died in my mouth as I found Nokomi’s handmaiden, Halina standing on my doorstep.
Her blue eyes were like chips of bright sky, and her mouth was holding back a smile, just barely. “Hello.”
“Halina.” I said softly, nodding my head for lack of knowing what the proper greeting for her was. I was unaware of her actual station, and she’d taken me by surprise.
“Captain Goren.” She reached over and plucked a tuft of dog’s fur from the front of my jacket, just on the ribs, where I’d overlooked it.
My nostrils took another hit of her perfume, or Nokomi’s perfume actually. It was on her wrists and the hollow of her throat. My hand snaked out, seizing her wrist, though not painfully. I drew in a breath along her skin. “You smell like her.”
Halina’s eyes registered surprise, even if her face did not. She carefully pulled her hand back. After a moment, she smiled warmly and tilted her head to regard me, as if she’d just realized something. I noticed that she was of a height with Nokomi, maybe even slightly taller, though her shoulders were a scant bit narrower. Given the right lighting, costume, and hair done right, she could almost be Nokomi’s double – except for the eyes. One would never mistake these crystal blue eyes for Nokomi’s warm coffee-colored eyes.
“And you smell like Dog.” She said ‘dog’ in such a way that seemed to indicate that she knew more about us than she’d let on in that first meeting.
How much had Nokomi told her of us? How much could she really? Today had only been our third meeting ever, and I doubted that Kalb told her much of my exploits, although she could have overheard conversations between the minister and her father.
Dog stepped forward to sniff at the hem of her skirts. I let him. We’d memorize Halina’s scent and use it to tell the two apart, even if she tried to disguise herself with Nokomi’s perfume. He finished sniffing, and I took in her scent through him. She had her own complex scent, not unpleasant at all, but it was not Nokomi’s.
When Dog settled back on his heels, I asked her, “What can I do for you?”
“I have an invitation for you.” She announced cheerfully.
I held out my hand, waiting for the invitation to be handed over.
She laughed musically, her cheeks dimpling attractively. “Do you think that the princess commits such things to paper? Now let me in so I can offer you the particulars.”
I frowned at her, but stood aside for her to enter. She stared at me expectantly, and I realized she wanted me to close the door, so I did so. Kalb’s words about being careful and circumspect in my public dealings came to mind. Talking to one of the princess’ handmaidens in my open door could certainly draw unwanted attention. I doubted that many scribes did such a thing.
With the door closed, Halina reached out and put a hand on my chest. I looked at the hand in confusion. Her eyes not leaving mine, she settled in against my chest as Nokomi had done just a few hours ago. She closed her eyes, her long lashes fluttering shut, and she reached to pull my face down toward hers. Her scent confused me, so close to Nokomi’s and yet not.
She was playing with me, testing me. I could feel it, and I didn’t care for it. I growled, took her by the shoulders, and thrust her an arm’s length away from me.
Halina’s eyes were suddenly wide open once more, and her hand went to her mouth. “Your eyes!”
I blinked and turned away. They’d gone yellow. I knew what she had seen.
“So it is true, the rumors about Captain Goren and his special soldiers.” She looked at Dog with new understanding, but he regarded her cautiously. “I thought the princess was making up stories…”
“Why are you here?” I demanded.
She blinked. “To deliver an invitation. The princess wishes to take a meal with you, four days hence.”
“And this test? Was this also her plan?”
She smiled. “That was all my idea. I saw what passed between you and Nokomi. You are like two old lovers, but you only knew each other as children. Your bond is something special, and I wanted to see what it was.”
My forehead throbbed suddenly. I massaged it with my fingertips. “What we have is different. You could not understand.”
“I’d like to.” She offered, placing her hand gently on my wrist. When had she moved back to my side?
“But you can’t.” I replied simply.
I was starting to regard this encounter as a military exchange. She was probing me for weakness. She was getting a measure of me. Dog wanted to get to know her better, in the manner of dogs, but the wrestling and sniffing that would require was not something I was about to engage in.
“Too bad.” She inhaled deeply and let it go with a sigh. “Do you have an answer for her then?”
I remembered Kalb’s warning and the Empress’ request. Even so, I couldn’t bring myself to say no to Nokomi. I would have to find a way to balance things, to keep everyone happy. “I will meet her, whenever and wherever she requests.” I answered quickly.
“There is something between you two, and I will figure it out.” Halina smiled the smile of one who enjoys puzzles and mysteries.
I shrugged. “Perhaps.”
“We will see each other again, Captain Goren.” Halina promised, and I had a feeling she meant it. The only question was would Nokomi be with her when she arranged our next meeting?
Dog and I watched her leave. She slid the door closed behind her, leaving the two of us alone once more. I wondered how close she’d been to drawing her knife after she saw my eyes change.
We stared at the closed door for a long moment, at least until Dog’s stomach growled. A moment later, mine did, too. We were bonded, the two of us.
We went searching for food with the perfume still tingling in our noses.
I’d never been to the palace before. It was not a place that a child visits when he lives in the streets, as I had. No, my time in the city had mostly been spent sleeping, scavenging for food, and avoiding the human predators that prowled a big city’s dark and narrow side streets. Many times I’d found that people were nastier creatures than the beasts that lived in the wild.
The palace was expansive, making up an entire section of the city by itself, a different quarter than I had lived in. The palace itself was a complex of buildings, all walled in, with walls within walls and more small buildings within those walls. Surrounding the palace was something of a second city, where the scribes, attendants, officers, and officials lived, as well as those who served them. The farther you lived from the palace grounds, the lower your rank.
I approached the palace through this surrounding village first, marveling at the luxury even the lowest of them appeared to live in. Their grounds were all well-kept, with manicured shrubs lining the approaches and decorative flowers sitting in expensive pottery. Many of these estates had their own walls, with two to four buildings within them. Their roofs were tiled, lofting above the walls and gates that surrounded them. Here and there, I could even see second or third stories, where men and women went about their morning work on balconies that overlooked their neighbors.
Dog and I looked at each other. We’d lived on cots in dusty tents or worse for the last few years. The Kennel, where we’d first been trained, had initially offered no better than moldering old blankets and hard-packed dirt floors. We’d changed that, so we’d eventually slept on straw-stuffed mattresses, and we’d taken to eating our meals at the low kneeling tables that were now in favor. Still, we couldn’t imagine living in such comfort, and we hadn’t even seen the palace yet.
The last few houses we passed even had soldiers out front, guards with halberds that brought to mind the auburn guards of the Kennel. Like these soldiers, the auburn guards had always watched us to make sure we remained more man than beast, never stepping out of line. Not that they’d been able to always control us. No, Dog and I were wilder than what they’d dealt with before our coming, and everyone we’d met there had been changed because of our meeting.
We finally approached the palace, or at least the outer wall of the palace. A low wall, perhaps the half again as tall as I was, marked the outer perimeter of the palace. A simple gate with a tiled roof and heavy wooden doors wrapped in iron marked the entrance. A squad of soldiers, eight total, stood by. I knew from the low roof just beyond the gate that there was another score at least waiting by in a the guardhouse. It was a pretty standard setup for any fort in the kingdom, but there would be even more guards stationed here than I was used to. Security would be tighter, more levels of defense stacked upon each other.
Beyond the gate and wall, I could see ornamented watchtowers, including at least two where bells could be rang to signal attack. If the bells sounded, soldiers would pour out of their stations and move to bar doors and lock down each section of the palace. Attackers would have to make their way through at least half a dozen gated walls and obstacles to get to anywhere significant, more if they wanted to get to the royal family and the highest advisors. I smiled at this, thinking about how my mind had been trained to visually probe for weaknesses.
The guards halted me, eyeing Dog and I warily. I wore no signs of rank, though I was effectively a captain in the army and outranked all of these men, except perhaps whatever officer they had in charge of this gate, although he was not currently visible.
Smiling, I offered my orders to the men, who took them and read carefully. Upon reading my name at the bottom, two of the men looked at each other, whispering my name amongst themselves. Clearly, they’d heard of me or my exploits.
“Captain Goren, proceed in.” One of the said quickly. They sketched a hasty military bow, stepping aside.
I nodded and entered the palace, scanning from side to side and ignoring the soldiers’ whispers, though I could still hear them. Two large covered pavilions were ahead of me to my left and right with another, smaller gate just in front of me, a long stone’s throw away.
The large pavilions stood on both ends of the massive C-shaped building beyond them. They were open to the air, with heavy wooden stairs leading up to three floors of walkways and seating areas. Soldiers, officers, and palace workers were evident on each floor, walking, talking, and taking tea together in discussions of politics and intrigue. I cared little for them, noting that Nokomi was not among them.
I could sense her, somewhat distant, but so near to me, nearer than I’d felt her since I was a child. Dog and I quick-stepped toward the small gate between the pavilions, working closer to the palace proper, feeling that it was the correct way to go to reach Nokomi. Once more, I flashed my orders and ignored the whispers.
Now I was inside the palace grounds. Rounded, onion-shaped towers were at my left and right, the endcaps to the largest building I’d ever seen. The building was in the shape of a large open rectangle with a missing side, with the open end toward me. Built in the space between the three walls was a long courtyard, cast in shadows by the palace. This section of the palace was impressively large, the largest building of the entire palace complex in fact. Only the royal residence was close in size, but it was merely half as large as this giant structure.
This part of the palace had been built with marble columns that supported two very tall balconied stories, the upper of which was lined with hundreds of horseshoe arches. It had been built in a style that marked it as a remnant of our old rulers, the leaders of this land before Nokomi’s family had come and conquered our lands. Only the onion domes at the ends of the building looked to be new additions to this part of the palace. Their copper plating burned like the sun itself, making me look aside.
The courtyard I stood at the entrance to was covered with a crisscross of graveled paths that led between ornamental plants and flowering or fruited trees. Benches and covered sitting areas were placed strategically around the long courtyard, and there were also several small ponds with decorative bridges spanning across them. People in ornamental clothes and official garb gathered in the sitting areas or walked and talked as they enjoyed the grounds.
On any other day, Dog and I would have likely to do the same. We would have stopped to explore, watching the fat fish wriggle through the warm ponds, or taken in some shade beneath a fragrant tree. Today, we only had one goal, and she was growing nearer by the moment. I could feel it in my forehead, which had gone from a tingle to a warm burn. She knew we were coming, and she was hurrying to meet us.
My jaw tightened and my heart leapt. I continued through the gardens, gravel crunching crisply beneath my booted feet as we headed toward the far end. We approached the far end after a good walk, and I could see taller trees, but they were spindly and decoratively pruned, so as to not offer any visual barriers to the guards that patrolled the balconies of the second floor.
I could feel Nokomi growing close, ever so close, but the trees obscured my view. Dog whined beside me, feeling the same anxiousness that I felt. We shared a soul, he and I, so how could he not feel as I did?
Abruptly, I halted, Dog coming to heel beside me, sitting in the gravel at my right side. My hand reflexively went to his head, resting between his ears. His bristly hair was familiar and comforting against my palm and on my fingertips.
She was here at last, and my forehead burned feverishly. I caught scent of her at the same moment I saw her through the trees as she exited the palace. Her perfume carried to me, the same perfume I knew from that day in the market and from the handkerchief my instructors had used to play with my emotions back at the Kennel.
She took the steps two at a time, holding her skirts as she went. The two ladies-in-waiting beside her struggled to keep up. She skidded to a halt at the bottom of the stairs and her eyes widened at the sight of me, chest heaving. She was breathing heavily as if she’d just ran, but I felt the same way; I struggled to keep my breathing steady. Like two monumental forces coming together, we were finally staring at one another, and there was no one here to keep us apart. I’d waited most of my life for this. We took a measure of each other from a safe distance, some twenty paces perhaps.
What did she see when she looked at me? Did she still see my hazel eyes, green in the center and brown around the edges? I knew my skin was darker than it had been, from years in the desert sun, and I was certainly taller and heavier than the scrawny boy she’d known from the streets. My clothes, other than travel dusty, were certainly not the rags I’d worn the other two times she’d seen me. I had my adult height and size about me now, and I carried myself with confidence. I was not a scared kid hiding in alleyways any longer – I was a successful officer in her father’s army.
And her, even at this distance, I could see the warm, reddish-brown of her eyes that complimented the healthy glow of her skin, as set off by her silken gown and gauzy headscarf, both cream-colored but embroidered with tones of yellow, scarlet, and greenish-blue. If her scent was the same, her face was not. She had grown into her face and was certainly more stunning for it. Her eyes were surrounded by dark lashes that set off her large eyes, which were set to either side of her shapely nose. Her mouth was small, with lips of a lively red color, and a slight cleft on her chin only drew more attention to her well-balanced face. Her hair had been carefully braided into a complicated scheme that I wished to run my fingers over, exploring each delicate twist.
We began stumbling toward each other at the same moment, Dog at my side and her two attendants flanking her. She clutched once more at her silk skirts, gathering them in her fists so she would not trip over them as she approached. I blinked away the burning feeling that had spread all across my face and was threatening to sink down into my the muscles at the sides of my neck. My mouth felt dry as I crossed the last few steps to her.
I didn’t know what she was going to do before it happened, but her arms opened and we threw ourselves into an awkward hug. Her head went against my collarbone, and my chin fit perfectly on top of her head. I was certainly taller than her now, though I had not been years ago. Dog found her hand with his muzzle, and I could feel her smile against my chest as he licked her fingers.
“Goren.” She whispered softly, but my ears could easily hear it.
“I’d say that’s not my name, but it’s on my orders now, too.” I muttered.
She pushed herself back a hands width, keeping her arms around me still, so she could look up into my eyes and I into hers. I swam in those eyes for a long moment and a smile came across her face like the sun rising over the horizon. The burning in my face relaxed, replaced by a warmth that suffused through my whole body. I was acutely aware of her complicated scent, a mixture my nose interpreted as flowers, apricots, and honey, as well as the jasmine and bergamot musk of her hair.
I could have stayed in that moment forever, but her lips quirked into a smile and her eyebrow rose with curiosity.
“They made us all take people names.” I explained. “We couldn’t very well go by nicknames like: Scar, Legs, Killer, Mongrel, or Go. I needed a real name, so I took the one you gave me.”
Her lips parted in a smile. “I’m glad you kept it, that you remembered.”
“I remember everything about you, everything that ever happened between us.”
As I said this, I realized the impact our meeting was having on Nokomi’s two attendants, who were trying not to whisper and stare at the two of us, but failing. I smiled at the two of them, watching the prettier, shorter one of the two blush deeply and avert her eyes shyly.
Nokomi released me then, but kept a hand on Dog, fiddling with one of his round ears. “These are my handmaidens, Lila and Halina.” She indicated the shy one first, then the taller, dark-haired one with strikingly blue eyes second.
The two girls both curtsied quickly. They did it with precision, clearly a practiced gesture. “Sir.” They said together.
“And this is Captain Goren of the border guard, recently recalled on the orders of Minister Kalb.” She introduced me in turn.
“It is a pleasure to meet you both.” I said softly, smiling with genuine warmth.
I could smell the kindness on them. They were true friends of Nokomi, and I would treat them as such. With my senses enhanced by Dog, I could often get a scent of people, knowing more about them than even their body language would tell. I could smell lies or mixed truths as easily as I could smell the difference between fear sweat and of the sweat of exertion. There were many things that Dog’s shared senses allowed me to know about people, and these were two that I knew I could trust.
Nokomi knelt to give Dog more attention, which he accepted with great pleasure. He adored her as much as I did, and he was ever one for a good ear scratching. His tongue lolled out happily, and he licked her face. I found myself jealous in that moment, but I knew what her cheek tasted like to Dog through our bond. She’d eaten dates this morning. A tiny bit of sweetness remained on her lips and breath. I suddenly had the urge to eat dates, if only to understand her better.
Nokomi stood and sighed softly. “There is so much to catch up, on, my dear friend, Goren. We must make a point of having tea one day, so we can share stories of the past few years.”
“We must.” I agreed.
Dog yipped, making her laugh. She mussed the fur between his ears and grinned. “You can come, too, Dog.” She glanced up at me, and her eyes indicated that we were being watched.
“How do I…?” I wasn’t sure on the etiquette of meeting the princess and requesting an audience, even if it was just for conversation and a meal. I was suddenly aware of the other faces in the courtyard and on the balconies, many of which had taken note of our meeting. Of course, she’d grown up here, so she knew that her presence would attract attention.
“I’ll set it up. Halina or Lila will deliver the invitation.” Nokomi informed me, suddenly a lot more formal than she had been. Even she had been caught up in the moment.
I got the hint, and I bowed reverently, as was due for someone in my station. “Princess.” Dog grinned up at the two of us.
“Goodbye, Captain Goren.” She put extra emphasis on saying my name, which she’d given me.
I grinned and watched her retreat back toward the arched walkways. Halina cast a questioning glance back at me, her blue eyes curious but cautious. I inclined my head to her and knelt beside dog as they left. That one would definitely want to know more of my story. I imagined that she would have many questions for Nokomi.
I put my forehead against Dog’s muzzle, wrapping my arms around his shoulders. He turned to lick my face. I smiled and inhaled his familiar scent, feeling something I hadn’t felt for a long time.
“We are home.” I said to him at last.
He let out a soft whine of agreement, still staring at the walkway Nokomi had disappeared down.
National Novel Writing Month 2019: The Emperor's Dogs