I spent the next few hours meeting with the contingent of the Emperor’s Dogs that had arrived and were stationed within the palace. Aside from Legs, I’d found a few familiar faces from the old days, such as Scar, who still had a torn corner of his mouth, and Bull, who had been one of my first friends and companions. The years had aged them all, but they’d grown stronger and more dependable with their experience.
I had arranged for each of them to take a member of the royal family to guard. Scar would guard the Empress, since he was the most vicious and capable of the three of them. Bull was a stalwart friend and warrior, but he was calmer and more suited to guarding someone like Neema, who would not have appreciated Scar’s rough appearance or his aggressive dog. That left Legs to run messages and coordinate with other cells of the Emperor’s Dogs I’d stationed throughout the palace, so that I could watch over Nokomi personally. There was not a one among these three that I would not trust with my life, but Nokomi’s life was another thing.
I was in council with the four of them when I heard the Emperor’s entourage had set out. I frowned at the abrupt nature of the departure. It was a market day, so that meant many extra faces spread throughout the palace grounds, many of which I did not recognize. I growled and headed for the gates, my old companions flanking me.
We formed an impressive knot of aggression that none would challenge. Servants, officials, guards, and folks of all manner made way for us, like prey vanishing before the approach of a lion. If their ears had perked or if they’d sprouted tails to flash warning to one another, I’d likely not have been surprised.
I led the way toward the gates, halting when I saw the Emperor’s party arrive at the gates, where they were greeted. It was a small party indeed, perhaps a score in all, with Teeth flanking the group of mounted men, even though his presence was spooking more than one of the horses. Emperor Baraz was outfitted for travel, not for comfort. He traveled only with those he needed and would likely pick up a larger escort of soldiers at a camp outside the city. Knowing him, he’d have already prepared a handpicked troop loyal only to him.
“He rides light.” Scar muttered through his ruined mouth. He’d practiced for years and was much more understandable these days, although his eating was still horribly messy.
Dog made an unhappy noise, and I shook my head. “I warned them about this.”
“Kalb is with them. He’s like a war elephant on his own.” Legs commented blithely. “What could go wrong?”
We all looked at him, and he shrunk under our collective disdain. I loved the guy, but a messenger like him didn’t always understand the greater picture when it came to pitched battles. Numbers mattered.
The Emperor’s party exited through the main gates, saluted by the officer at the gate and his company of troops. Several accompanied the Emperor’s troop, trotting alongside them with halberds held high. It was a position of honor, one the Emperor bore patiently, seeing as how he wanted speed, not ceremony. That was why he’d chosen such a small group, one without an honor guard.
The gates closed slowly behind them, and the junior officer on duty looked truly happy with himself. I doubted he often got to see the Emperor in person, let alone bid him a fair journey.
It was the last watch of the afternoon, and so it was not a likely time to leave. Most would have chosen to leave in the morning, to put the most distance behind them by starting off early. The Emperor must have chosen a close location to stop over, unless he planned on riding through the night. Either way, he was being unpredictable, and that would make it hard for Navid to attack him.
“Let’s get to our stations.” I suggested. There was little to be gained by watching guards stand about the gates, and I wanted to be as near to Nokomi as I could now that her father had left. “We have duties to be about, important people to protect.”
Scar and Bull saluted me, while Legs stared off in the direction the Emperor had gone. A puzzled look spread across his face.
“Legs?” I asked.
Legs lifted his hand and nodded in the Emperor’s direction. “Is that a man on the roof?”
I turned, following his pointed finger toward a tall estate just a couple rows of property beyond the gates. Sure enough, I saw someone crawling out on the tiled roof. He was not on the balcony, but on the actual roof. That shadow pulled up into a crouch, drawing a bow.
“They’re not even waiting until they get out of the city to attack!” I stared in surprise.
“How did they know?” Scar asked.
I shook my head. It didn’t matter. “To the Emperor!” I shouted, tensing. “Make for the gates!”
I broke into a run, Dog throwing everything he had into it as he charged alongside me. As I did, I noticed more shadowy figures appearing on other rooftops beyond the gates. They’d rip the Emperor apart in the crossfire.
“Move! Move!” I screamed at my companions, and all eight of us, four men and four dogs ran for the gates.
The junior officer who had just bid the Emperor farewell turned to stare at us, a stunned look on his face as I shouted for him to throw the gates open. His helmet plume bobbed lamely in the breeze, and his men hesitated, waiting for an order to do as told or to draw steel and prevent us from following the Emperor.
“What goes on here?” The officer demanded, trying to look full of command, but he lacked the presence.
From beyond the gates, I could hear shouts, the clanging of weapons, and the firing of arrows. We were running out of time.
I let my face go wild, fangs, eyes, and all. Then I growled at the man, “The Emperor is under attack! Now open the gates, or I’ll rip you to pieces!”
The officer went pale, and his chin began to tremble. “What?” He looked to the walls, where soldiers were starting to point in confusion. He frowned and looked back at me.
I’d struck him dumb with fear. Growling, I shoved the man aside. He tumbled backward into the guard shack. A few blades rang free of their scabbards. Dogs around me began to growl, baring teeth, their own version of blades.
“Open the gates! Your Emperor is under attack!” I snarled at the men.
More shouts and the echoes of battle came from outside the gates. One of the watchtowers to the southern side of the gates began to ring a bell. Moments later, others took up the ring. Soon, the whole palace was alive with the ringing of warning bells and the noise of soldiers coming ready to fight.
Except, there was fighting within the walls, too, I realized. Bull looked back the way we’d come, where chaos had broken out. “The market is under attack.”
The officer suddenly realized what was happening, and his simple training took over. “The gates!” He shouted. “Secure the gates!”
At that, men actually jumped into action, closing us off from the Emperor’s rescue. They were trying to protect the palace, which was what they’d been trained to do. The problem was, the Emperor was being attacked outside, and there were insurgents within the walls attacking as well.
I cursed and turned to my companions. “Hold off these fools and get the gates open. Once they’re open, keep them that way. The Emperor may have to retreat this way.”
“Where are you going?” Legs asked, drawing his sword.
“I’m going for the Emperor. Even someone like Kalb is going to need help.” I grinned at Legs.
“All or nothing.” Bull offered a bark.
“All or nothing.” I echoed back.
Dog and I made for the walkways that led to the top of the gates. Soldiers tried to bar the way, but with the beast taking over my arms, legs, and reflexes, they had no hope to do so. It would take more than swords or spears to stop Dog and I.
Soldiers tumbled out of our way as we charged up the wooden stairs. The first two I threw off the stairs, sending them tumbling into a heap on the ground below. Th next one I threw backward into the another and trampled them both beneath our feet and paws. Laughing, we cleared our way to the landing with a powerful leap.
Atop the wall, other guards moved to hedge us in, but they didn’t realize that we weren’t going to walk down the walls – we were going over them. I paused only long enough to take stock of what was going on out in the streets.
A dozen archers had pinned down the Emperor’s small force with arrows, while ground forces had swarmed from the alleys and estates. Navid’s soldiers, I realized. He’d grown so brazen that he hadn’t even bothered to hide the fact that it was him. I couldn’t believe it, even if it’d always been what I’d suspected. All or nothing indeed!
The Emperor’s small cadre of men had drawn swords and small buckler shields. They had ringed themselves around the Emperor, but they were vastly outnumbered. Horses and men were already down in the street, dead from the initial flights of arrows and spear attacks. In the middle of a knot of fighting, I saw Kalb standing beside the Emperor, roaring in a fully glorious version of himself that was closer to animal than man. At his side, Teeth had an arrow sprouting from his side, but he was mauling a man to death as if his wound was nothing consequential.
I threw myself from the top of the wall then, trusting my companions to get the gates back open soon. Three of them were easily a match for twenty confused guards. When I hit the ground, I rose quickly and hunched my shoulders to make a landing surface of my back. Dog’s toenails scratched deep as he landed on me, vaulted over me, and kept running as if the drop were nothing. He bolted ahead, heading for where the Emperor fought for his life. I let my nature take over, and surged forward with him.
I saw the last of the honor guard of gate men fall as I arrived at the fight. I threw myself headlong into battle, needing no sword or weapon when I had my claws and teeth. Like a hammer, we struck the attackers, sending men to the ground battered and torn. The screams of horses and animals filled the streets, music to my savage ears.
Dog worked over the lower halves of men, tearing at femoral arteries and hamstringing foes so I could rip their throats out or gash out their eyes. Roaring deeply, I found myself battling near Kalb and the Emperor, who were rapidly losing human shields.
Another volley of arrows fell upon us. Kalb took one in the shoulder, and the Emperor cursed. I saw that he’d taken one in the leg. He staggered, taking a man in the neck with his sword as he struggled to remain on two feet. His horse was dead beneath him, probably several minutes ago.
The Emperor’s hand went to his leg, coming back dark with blood. He made a fist with his bloodied hand and punched it toward the nearest knot of enemies. A gout of flame erupted from him, engulfing the traitorous soldiers.
Dog snarled at my side, taking the neck of an enemy that had gotten too close while I’d been distracted by the Emperor’s blood magic. I felt a cut across my chest. Another of Navid’s soldiers had just scored my flesh with a spear tip. I snapped the shaft of the spear with a swipe of my claw. Then I drove my foot into his armored chest, shattering his bones beneath it. He was dead before he hit the ground.
Another wave of soldiers poured down the street, moving to overwhelm us.
“There are too many!” I shouted. “Get the Emperor back within the walls!”
Kalb rounded on me, blood dripping down his face from a scalp wound. “Navid will have taken the palace, too, Go. There is no way we’re getting back in the gates. We’re going to be surrounded!”
I shook my head. “My men are getting those gates open.”
A light of hope entered Kalb’s eyes, and he nodded toward the Emperor. “Take him. I’ll hold them off.”
“We go together, or not at all.” The Emperor interjected, gathering a pool of his own blood into the palms of his hands. He eyed me. “Aren’t you supposed to be guarding my family, Captain?”
“You’re the head of the family, Sir, so I am guarding your family at this very moment.” I grinned at the Emperor, killing another enemy as I made light of disobeying his orders.
The Emperor laughed, gathered his focus into his bloody hands, where his blood seemed to coagulate at his will. He mashed his two hands together to create a single mass, which he cast in the direction of the largest concentration of enemies, and we ran. Or, at least we tried to, with me helping the wounded Emperor along.
The explosion that followed that tarry, black blood was deafening. To one of as sharp of senses as I was, it was staggering. Everything went white, and I felt something sting my shoulder. I tumbled to the ground, covering the Emperor’s body with my own.
“Captain!” A voice grunted from under me.
I climbed off of the Emperor and helped him back to his feet. I shook my head, but my ears were still ringing. Smoke drifted across my vision, but I could see that the gates were open. Legs was running to us, while Scar and Bull were holding the gates with their dogs, fending off a number of soldiers with increasing difficulty.
It was then that I noticed I’d been hit with an arrow. It had gone straight through my forearm. I frowned at it, bit through the feathered end of it, and pulled the remainder out the other side.
Dog whimpered at my side, shaking his head. He walked unevenly, clearly dazed by the noise of the last explosion, but we still headed toward the gates. Kalb limped alongside us, with half a dozen wounded soldiers, all that remained of the Emperor’s guard.
I cast a glance back to see several score of enemies still coming our way. There were too many left, even after the wreckage that had been made of their force by the Emperor’s bomb. They ran around the mangled pile of bodies and the cries of burned and broken men.
From the rooftops, another volley of arrows coming our way.
“Arrows!” I shouted, probably louder than I could tell. My ears still rang.
The Emperor turned around. With a spray of blood falling from his bloodied wrist, he cast an arc of fire out to scorch many of the arrows to ashes, but more still came, and he could not stop them all. The soldiers threw themselves in the way of the arrows, taking their deaths instead of allowing their leader to fall.
Legs skidded to a halt beside us, his eyes glowing. He let loose a howl that caused some of the approaching soldiers to falter in their advance.
“Take the Emperor, Legs. Carry him back to the walls!” I ordered.
Legs nodded, hoisting the protesting Emperor upon his shoulder as one might a sack of flour. He bolted back for the safety of the walls then. I laughed to see it. Long-legged and fleet of foot, he was the fastest man I’d ever known, and his floppy-eared dog ran like the wind before him.
“Kalb! Move!” Everything had been reduced to shouts and screams in the din of battle, one-sided or not.
Kalb nodded, stumbling toward the wall. Teeth lagged beside him, his wounds finally slowing him. He’d taken a second arrow at some point. It protruded from his rear left leg, and he limped at half speed, if that. Kalb, fully engaged in his animal’s pain, limped on the left as well.
Dog looked at me, and I knew what he was thinking. Those two wouldn’t make it to the wall, not with so many soldiers closing in. And where were the reinforcements? The palace warning bells were still ringing. My ears did not betray me. I could hear them clanging away, but where were was the palace guard? Where were our reinforcements? Had they all been tied up with the forces inside the walls, or was Navid marshalling his strength within the walls, withholding any assistance for the Emperor.
I snarled and leapt forward, wishing I had the strength to carry both Kalb and his beast. I knew that neither of them would let me take the other. Live or die, they’d do it together.
When the safety of the walls looked to be within our grasp, that’s when Navid’s hammer fell. His wolves fell upon us. Legs didn’t have a chance. The Emperor’s Dogs were raised to be a pack of beasts masquerading as men. We were powerful, but disciplined. A dog pack was much like an army, with ranks and order.
Navid’s Wolves were the opposite. They were a snarling, rabid pack of beasts, all fury and violence without restraint. Three of them burst from the top of the walls without warning. They went right at the Emperor’s rescuer, hitting Legs like cannonballs.
Legs’ ribs were crushed as they hit him, and the Emperor was thrown like a ragdoll upon the cobbled road that led to the gates. Leg’s dog howled in agony when his master went down in a sickening twist of limbs. Navid’s wolves set upon my broken friend and his dog, tearing them to pieces.
I howled in anger, but had no chance to avenge him, for two more of the Navid’s foul creatures burst from the army behind me. They were coming for me, so I let myself go. There was no reason for the human reasoning within me to remain. I needed all of my anger and strength for vengeance.
The corners of my mouth tore as my jaw elongated, making way for savage teeth and wicked fangs. I was not so much dog as I was beast. My muscles rippled and reworked themselves into weapons. My legs felt like catapults, drawn back and ready to spring. I’d never gone so far from my humanity before, but this was not a time for half measures.
I cleared ten paces with a single leap, carrying me into the surprised, red-eyed beast that Navid’s training had fashioned of this boy. I drove my fist through his chest. Dog caught up to me a moment later, seizing the man’s stunned beast in his jaws and ending it with his bone-crushing teeth.
Another of Navid’s foul creations sought to take my life from behind, but I was far faster than he bargained for. I gutted him with claws as long as daggers and left him crying on his entrails. His dog bit me once before I broke its back with an elbow driven down into its spine. It shuddered and died badly.
Navid’s army tried to close around me, but I quickly showed them how foolish that was. I shredded metal and flesh alike with my claws. When I could, I took their weapons, casting them with deadly accuracy at any of the bowmen who tried to line up a shot at me from what they believed to be the safety of the rooftops. How wrong they were. They fell like sparrows struck with sling stones, breaking on the ground when they hit.
Still they came, and I was vaguely aware of the screams of my allies, but I was unable to bring myself back enough to care. I was fully into my bloodlust, and I was letting the ground drink deeply of enemy blood.
I am sure that I took wounds, but in that state, I could not feel them. The ground grew slick with blood and gore, but there was no end to the death I dealt.
I battled on, killing with claws and teeth and sword alike. Dog was a wind of death beside me, and I’m afraid I did not recognize friend or foe until I heard my name.
“Go!” A voice screamed.
I rounded on this new enemy, only then realizing it was the Emperor calling my name. He’d lost his helmet, blood obscured half of his face, and he was covered with dust and blood. His sword was the only thing keeping his body upright; he used it as a walking stick. Even in his obvious pain he could not hide how terrifying he found my appearance.
“We are lost, Go.” He choked out the words, struggling to breathe.
I looked down, smelling and sensing mortal wounds. The Emperor had lost too much blood. Not far away, Kalb lay on the ground, his face torn and his breath making bubbles in his blood.
“Kalb.” I tried to say, but my mouth could not make words any longer, not human ones anyway. I howled instead.
“Save my family.” The Emperor begged me, clasping weakly at the front of my torn uniform.
I nodded, wishing I could say something profound, but I had nothing. Words could not express what I felt.
He pushed away from me, heading for the largest concentration of the enemy. They gathered around him, hedging in the Emperor with spear tips and ready blades. I knew what he was going to do, so I ran then, killing another of Navid’s wolves on the way.
I gathered Scar to me. He was injured, but he was the only one left of my friends. Bull had been killed holding the gates. I would have mourned my friend, but I had no time. I had to get to Nokomi before Navid’s men did, and I feared too much time had already been wasted.
I paused only once, looking back at the Emperor as he fell. I thought I saw a smile on his face as a soldier rammed a sword through his chest. He cried out as he died, Anahita’s name, I think. Even in death, he was not finished.
I quickly turned my eyes as a flash of white erupted from the Emperor’s body, growing like a fountain of fire that crumpled buildings and erased people in its wake. The explosion rocked the entire palace.
I used the confusion to get to the woman I loved.
I woke beside Nokomi, with Halina and Lila huddled together behind me. Dog had eventually found his way back into the bed as well, with his back pressed against Nokomi’s.
My eyes opened and I yawned quietly, stifling the noise against the back of my hand. Even so, it was enough to wake Nokomi. A momentarily look of guilt crossed her face as she realized where I was. She lifted her head to look past me at her two handmaidens, who were both fast asleep still.
“You should go.” She mouthed to me.
I nodded and levered myself up with an elbow. I made to leave, but her hand caught mine first, and she pulled me down to press her lips against my cheek. I smiled at that, enjoying the warm softness against my face.
“Be safe.” She whispered ever so faintly into my ear, and then she let me go.
“You, too.” I whispered back.
She gave Dog a playful swat on the haunch as he stood. Then Dog and I made for the edge of the bed, lifting the netting over us instead of searching for a seam. I walked quietly around the edge of the bed to pick up my boots.
As I bent down to collect them, I noticed one of Halina’s blue eyes on me. It was a strange look, something between thankfulness and warning. She didn’t trust me fully, but she appreciated that I’d been able to comfort Nokomi, I supposed.
I nodded to her and plucked my boots off the floor. Dog and I departed swiftly. I put my boots on before I left her outside room, sliding out into the hallway, only to find Teeth waiting for me. That’s not something you appreciate in the morning, a giant beast waiting for you on the other side of a door and looking none too pleased.
“Good morning, Captain Goren.” Kalb was seated on a bench on the blind side of the doorway, and I did not see him until the door swung shut behind me.
“Kalb.” My face flushed, but I’d done nothing wrong. Not really.
“The Emperor has orders for you.” He stood and brushed the wrinkles from his robes of office. “Walk with me.”
I cleared my throat and nodded, falling in beside him. Dog stayed at my side, keeping his distance from Teeth, who smelled grumpy.
We entered the main hallway, heading toward the stairs that led to the upper levels of the residence. The stairs to the upper dome were near the middle of this floor, as it was much smaller than the lower dome that made up most of the residence.
Pairs of guards parted to allow the minister and his company access to the upper floors. These stairs were much more modest, leaving only space for the two of us and our dogs to walk abreast.
The third floor had a much more enclosed feeling to it, likely because the halls were narrower and the ceilings were not nearly so high as on the lower levels. Instead of stone, much of this floor seemed to be done with polished, fragrant woods. The inlays had been carved with geometric patterns, rosettes of ellipses and arcs.
“The Emperor’s private library.” Kalb announced, noticing my nose twitching.
That explained the dust and old parchment. There was more of it in the room we entered, a wide place filled with trophies and shelves of books. There were swords and armor on display, as well as interesting crystals formed in delicate hues of blue and red. More than anything, my eyes were drawn to a sculpture made of wild animal horns at the center of the room, with horns of ibex, gazelle, and springbok. It looked like a blazing star, all formed of animal horns. There was something primal about it that I appreciated.
Emperor Baraz was seated in an old wooden chair, waiting for us near that horned sculpture. He had a well-worn leather bound volume sitting on his lap. He looked up as we entered, his tired face looking more worn and worried than I’d ever seen it. His face looked sallow, almost sickly or weak. Perhaps the deaths over the last night had been harder on him than on Nokomi.
“Minister. Captain.” He greeted us each in turn.
“Sir.” I sketched a hasty bow.
The Emperor stared at me for a long moment. “I trust you are keeping a good watch over my family?”
“I am keeping a very close watch.” I answered swiftly, a blush filling my cheeks once more. It was a good thing the sun had darkened my complexion to hide it.
Beside me, Kalb’s mouth twitched with amusement, but he said nothing to betray me. However, it was entirely possible that the Emperor already knew where I’d slept the night before.
“Kalb and I are leaving. We’re going to meet with an envoy from the Kingdom of Arven.”
This news surprised me. “So soon? Your child was just born.”
The Emperor’s eyes hardened. “I’m aware of that, Captain, but the politics of a nation do not wait for personal reasons, not even if you’re the Emperor.”
“I understand, Sir. I just meant…” I started to explain myself, but Kalb grunted, signaling me to close my mouth. I did. Dog sat meekly on his haunches.
“I would prefer not to leave, but this is not a matter that can wait. Between the conflict at Saluud and the deaths last night, I need to get moving quickly.”
“What would you have of me? Should I accompany you?”
The Emperor shook his head. “General Navid will be staying behind. I need you to keep an eye on my brother and see that he is not up to no good.”
I bit my lip, refusing to ask the question that burned on my tongue, but the Emperor noticed.
“Yes? You have something to say, Captain Goren?”
“Is this not the opportunity he has waited for? Are you not possibly playing into his hands by leaving the seat of your power?”
The Emperor smiled and looked to Kalb. “Explain it to him.”
Kalb nodded. “If he truly is the one behind all of this, he cannot help but take this opportunity. He will make his move when he thinks the Emperor is distracted. That is why I’ve positioned our most loyal soldiers throughout the residence. Our best soldiers are ready to defend the royal family.”
I still wasn’t sure that I agreed with this tactic. A pack was strongest together. Dividing himself from his defenses made him vulnerable. “Would it not be better to take him with the two of you? How easily can he threaten the family if he is not here to direct the attacks?”
Kalb frowned, his lips pursing under his beard. Did he also have his doubts? He went silent, and the Emperor answered directly.
“Whoever is behind this, they are cautious, always moving behind the scenes. So it has been for many years. We need to finally create a situation where they feel like they can make an outright move. I can’t afford to play around any longer, waiting for them to make a mistake and expose themselves by accident. If it is Navid, he will not make any move while he is beside me. If it is him, then my family is safer yet with him here, as they will target me on the way to Arven and not them.”
“We’ve moved many of the Emperor’s Dogs back to the capitol, Go.” Kalb offered, as if this was as good as the Emperor remaining safely in the city. “You can call on them to defend the royal family. There are several in the city, and more arriving on the palace grounds.”
My mind whirled with the possibilities, and I could not help but ask the one thing no one was saying, “And what if you fail, Sir? What if you die on that road to Arven?”
“Then I will have vastly underestimated my enemies.” The Emperor admitted. “In that case, you will need to do what you can to protect my family.”
“I will be with him, Go. None will get to him save through Teeth and I.” Kalb declared. Teeth barked at his side, eyeing me as if daring me to dispute that fact.
While that would have once comforted me, I knew that even Kalb was not invincible. He could not outrun arrows any more than Fire and Mongrel had been able to, and they had been much younger than him, if less powerful.
I could see that there was nothing I could say to change their minds, so I would do what I could. “Then I will meet with the other dogs in the palace. I will arrange the protection of your family.”
“Watch over them, Captain.” The Emperor bid me.
“Of course. I shall not fail you in this. I shall guard them as if they were my own.” I bowed deeply.
The Emperor nodded, looking once more at his book. He eyed it, and then extended it out toward me. “Take it.”
“It is a copy of my family’s history.” He explained. “I think it will help you to better understand us.”
Dog and I stepped forward to receive the book. There was a wistful look about the Emperor’s eyes that I didn’t fully understand.
“In another time, Captain Goren…” The Emperor did not finish the thought.
Dog, ever the empathetic one, seemed to sense the Emperor’s need for comfort. He pressed his nose against our nation’s leader. The Emperor smiled, gave Dog a pet about the head and a gentle tug on his jowls. Dog’s tailed thumped against me.
“I will not fail you.” I repeated, holding the volume against my chest and bowing a second time.
“Travel safely.” I bid them.
The Emperor said no more, so Dog and I took our leave. We had dogs to meet with.
I changed clothes while I waited. The others smelled too much of beasts. I didn’t mind it, but the musk of the beast set many people ill at ease. So, I put on my cleanest military uniform, complete with all of its symbols of rank. There was no point trying to hide what I was any more. If I stood before the leaders of our people, it would be as the soldier they’d trained me to be.
Kalb arrived to escort me personally to the audience. Teeth was beside him, as always, but there was something different in the way the two of them carried themselves, as if they were distancing themselves from me. This was official business, and any familiarity we might have shared was gone, for the moment at least.
We walked in silence to the same audience chamber that General Navid had been welcomed in. Before we entered, Kalb turned his cloudy yellow eyes to me and said only one thing, “Be true to yourself and honest. I can say no more.”
I nodded, and waited for the doorman inside to call for me. Dog and I walked forward, entering through the enameled double doors that stood before us. We were announced as we proceeded into the room.
“Captain Goren and his dog.” A voice called out.
I grunted and turned to the man, who was surprised by the sudden attention. I looked him up and down, noting his careful manner and stylish dress that were vastly different from my own. “He’s not ‘my dog.’ His name is ‘Dog.’”
“Uhh, yes. Captain Goren and Dog?” The man announced carefully.
I nodded, and then approached the front of the room, stopping at a respectful distance, about ten paces and three steps away from the Emperor and his advisors.
Kalb’s expression was unimpressed, but the Emperor seemed to understand the distinction I’d just demanded. Names and labels were important. The Empress was strangely absent, with General Navid taking her place at the left of the Emperor to balance out Kalb. Navid had traded his armor for more fitting and official garb. He was far more richly appointed than the Emperor, although he did not wear a crown, as his brother did.
“Revisit the details of the assassination attempt. Spare no detail.” The Emperor commanded. His eyes were flinty, and his body was a study of contained fury.
“Sir.” I bowed respectfully before beginning. “I was observing the interactions of the princesses with their suitors, as I have been commanded to do. I was performing my guard duties as expected, when Dog and I determined that one of the servers was not who he pretended to be.”
“What does that mean? How did you realize what his intents were or that he was not what he appeared to be?” Navid interrupted.
I noticed that he made no attempt to explain away the situation as a mistake. There was no talk of me attacking an innocent man, so at least we were all in agreement there.
“I smelled the poison on the food he was trying to serve princess Neema. I imagine that the tart berries would have hidden the flavor until it was too late.” I answered.
“You smelled the poison. Is this a normal part of your duties? Aside from being a captain in our armies, are you also a wine taster and food sniffer?” Navid laughed, but quieted when Baraz swung his gaze in his direction.
“Captain Goren is known for his abilities.” Kalb remarked.
“Oh? Which abilities? I’m just now getting to know the man, though he has appeared several times around the palace. It makes me wonder what all his duties are…”
The implication that I had spied on him was clear. I made no effort to hide what I’d done. Dog sniffed at my side, and I did the same. “You had cumin, garlic, and paprika on your lamb today, sir. You washed it down with red wine. You were served by a young woman wearing jasmine perfume. There is an awful lot of it on your neck and left shoulder, so I imagine that she sat beside you while you ate. And did she shovel your food into your mouth with a flat of bread cooked in oil?”
Navid stared at me, his mouth twisting into a frown. Kalb grinned.
“Enough. We understand just how acute your sense of smell is. Now get on with the details. Tell me of the assassin.” Emperor Baraz ordered.
I inclined my head once more and continued with my recollection. “There were two servers, and while they both wore the same clothing and generally looked similar, one went without gloves. It was a small detail that tipped us off, that with the smell of poison.”
“How well can you smell poisons?” Navid asked.
“Well enough. At least with those I’m familiar with.” I admitted.
“And how many are you familiar with?” The Emperor asked.
“Twenty to thirty types? Some were employed in missions along the borders, used in softening up forces or eliminating specific insurgents or key persons.” I answered.
Navid stared at me with newfound interest. “Aside from the gloves and smells, how did you know?”
I shook my head, unable to fully explain, but I did my best. It was in the details, the miniscule differences. “It was in his eagerness to get the princess to eat what he carried…”
The Emperor sat forward. “How so?”
“It is difficult to put in words, but I will try.” I glanced at Dog, who seemed to nod at me. “In the same way that I can tell if a man is being genuine to a woman, or if he is being polite because he must, or if he has more lust-driven motives, I could tell that this man had different motives for his actions. It was in the way he carried himself, the way he moved, the tone of his voice, the way his pupils contracted, and the excited smell upon his skin. It all combined to create a picture of one intending harm and delighting in doing it.”
“And what of these wounds upon the man?” Navid inquired. “He was hardly fit to speak by the time we gathered him up for questioning. It looked as if he’d been savaged by wild animals.”
I met the general’s gaze, letting my eyes go yellow. “I am what I am, and he deserved every wound on his body, more even. He did not need his arms to tell you his secrets.” I smiled toothily, and Dog stood at attention beside me, the hair on his back rising.
The general knew exactly what I was, and there was no sense hiding it any longer, not if he’d already started gathering more of my kind to his side. Let him know that at least two dogs guarded the royal family.
The Emperor’s fist banged on the arm of his throne then. He gritted his teeth and glared at Kalb, though it was not his fault. It was the anger of a man whose family had just been attacked, and he knew there was nothing he could have done about it. What I’d just described was beyond his ability to sense.
“They came after my daughter, Kalb. Always, they came for me before, but now the rules have changed, and they think to go after my daughters.”
“I know, Sire.” Kalb bowed his head.
The Emperor thrust himself up out of his chair, startling Navid beside him. The Emperor staggered down the few steps that held his chair, coming down to a level with me. He had a crazed look in his eyes, a look that promised he was going to do something uncharacteristic of him.
I wanted to take a step back, but I did not. I remained standing as he came forward and threw himself at my feet and wept. These were tears of anger, frustration, and relief. I looked over at Kalb, who looked away uncomfortably, and then at Navid, who stared at this momentary show of weakness with utter fascination.
“You have saved the life of my daughter. I am deeply in your debt.” The Emperor said, head bowed.
“You owe me nothing.” I responded quickly. “Neema is important to Nokomi.”
“You have no idea, Go.” The Emperor said, catching his breath and gritting his teeth.
I sank down to kneel in front of him. “I think I do. I understand the need to protect one’s pack.”
The Emperor reached out and clasped me about the shoulders, nodding. “You know then, but how I wish I could have been be there to rip the man to pieces, to tear him limb from limb.”
“I understand that desire, too. That was how I felt with Tiny. Someone had hurt one of mine, and that was why it had to be me to kill Drum. You afforded me that privilege, and I have not forgotten that, sir. That is why you owe me nothing.”
The Emperor smiled at that. “Know that we will find the source of these attacks, Go, and you will be there to watch me strike them down this time. I am not one to forgive such an attack. Not ever.”
“Brother, it occurs to me that this may be the beginning of Arven’s retribution. Have I erred so badly in judging them? Would they seek the death of an Emperor’s daughter as a trade-off for a few foot soldiers in a port city?” Navid wondered aloud.
“This is not the way of the Kingdom of Arven. It is not the sort of reprisal they would’ve chosen. They are merchants, not murderers.” Kalb protested.
Navid shook his head. “What are assassins but merchants of death? Does it not fit? Is the timing not curious?”
“No more curious than the timing of your arrival.” Kalb muttered.
Navid stood abruptly, reaching for his ceremonial sword. “What are you implying, Minister?”
Teeth stood up, growling at the general and looking every bit of his size. Kalb put a restraining hand on Teeth’s shoulder. “Was it unclear?”
“Choose your next words carefully, Minister. I am brother to the Emperor. You are merely a friend of the court that walks around with a big dog.” Navid scoffed, letting an inch of his sword slide from the scabbard.
“Teeth is a very big dog, and I wonder if your brother might find it worth the risk if there is even a small chance that the attacks on his family stopped. Would you risk that?” Kalb grinned toothily, and Teeth growled a bit louder.
The Emperor watched my face as I observed the exchange. I suddenly suspected that this was playing out as he’d planned it. I also realized that Kalb had just painted a much larger target on himself than he’d had before if the one behind these attacks truly was General Navid.
“Peace.” The Emperor said, but it was enough.
The Emperor looked at both of them, allowing no more words to pass between the two as he retook his place on the center chair. Navid’s sword settled back into its scabbard, though his hateful looks did not vanish. Kalb looked as if he’d come out ahead in the exchange, and Teeth sat back on his haunches, staring at the general.
“We will recall more of our dogs back to the city.” The Emperor announced. “We will hunt these assassins in their nests. They will not be spared.”
“As you wish.” Kalb bowed.
“And the Kingdom of Arven?” Navid asked.
“I will deal with them directly. Preparations will be made.” The Emperor replied coolly.
It wasn’t certain whether he believed that the Kingdom of Arven had any hand in the attack or not, but he was not one to let things go unsettled. Strangely, the smell coming off of General Navid was also one of satisfaction.
I was dismissed shortly after, sent back to my quarters until my orders arrived.
Morning found me at the palace gates, or near them anyway. I watched from one of the covered pavilions that faced the gates, which I’d discovered upon my initial entrance to the palace grounds almost two weeks before. They made for a great vantage point, as I was able to see over the outer palace walls and into the city beyond.
I leaned on a polished rail, looking southward at the approaching procession, and it was definitely a procession. Some officials might travel with just a party of soldiers to guard them, an honor guard or escort, but General Navid traveled with half an army. I heard them and felt the vibrations of hoofbeats and footsteps before I saw the column approach. What was the point of it? I frowned at the whole affair.
Emperor Baraz was generally well-liked, especially considering that he was something of a conqueror. His family had taken this land and reforged it as a kingdom. He had been fair, if stern, and the people had prospered in the years since they’d taken power. His wife and daughters were considered nothing short of beloved treasures of the land. So what was General Navid getting out of this parade?
It was then that I noticed the reaction the column was having on the village south of the palace, where all of the officials and merchants held their estates. All of the most important folks of the city were witness to his arrival, and I imagined that the rest of the city had been similarly impressed as he’d wound his way through the streets with this column. It was a show of force and support, one that rivaled anything the Emperor had shown in recent years.
Then again, the Emperor was not one that required frivolous pomp or ceremony. He wouldn’t bother the people with a march of force through the city just to look important. He was the sort that led out front, by example, not by show.
I saw many of the troops halt as they approached the palace gates. Clearly, the entire military column would not be permitted entry. There were not enough lodgings for such an enormous troop. Many of them would shelter in the city or quarter themselves in the lodgings south of the palace. It was a contradictory thing, because quartering soldiers in private homes was not the sort of thing that endeared you to the populace, which seemed to be part of the purpose behind this parade, but it did make a very strong show of force.
The lead portion of the column split off, which included General Navid and his most trusted advisors. Dog stood at attention as this separate cadre approached the gates. I knew why. My eyes narrowed, focusing on a group of six soldiers on foot beside the mounted officers. Each of the six soldiers had a dog running beside them, and I could make out a red wolf’s head painted on each of their left shoulders. One, in particular, I knew.
Legs. He’d been a timid boy when we’d met in the Kennel. Fate had thrown him into the same pack as me, and we’d become friends. I still remember the way he’d looked on that first day. He’d been taller than me, with a long-limbed running dog as his companion, both of them skittish and afraid. Even in the time we’d served together on the borders, I’d never met a faster man or dog. Now, he was wearing a red wolf’s head on his shoulder and accompanying General Navid in his honor guard.
What had I missed in the short days since I’d left the front lines? We had not been stationed in the same area, but I had never head of these wolf’s head soldier markings.
I descended from my place along the rails of on the third floor, finding it too crowded for my liking. Dog didn’t care for all of the pointless chatter beside us anyway. I waited in the crowd that was beginning to gather along the ground level. Curiosity was certainly getting the better of some people, and Navid was the Emperor’s brother after all.
Dog and I moved through the crowd, finding a place where we could be out front and see what was going on, but also remain obscured by shadows and the crowds, but not so much that the dog soldiers couldn’t see us. Kalb had asked us to follow General Navid, but I felt very strongly that Legs would be a better source of information, and I wanted to make sure he saw us. We didn’t have long to wait.
General Navid easily cleared the guard station, and his officers fell in alongside him. Three dog soldiers trotted easily along at each flank of the entourage. Legs and two others I did not know were going to pass us by on our side. That I did not know them said something as to the widespread nature of the Emperor’s Dogs. I knew at least a hundred of our kind from training, drills, and tours on the border, but there were always others I did not know.
We waited, watching General Navid shout encouragements and wave at the people that gathered to witness his arrival. Flowers and palm branches were thrown down in his pathway, and people bowed to the Emperor’s brother. I watched him swell with pride, shouting out about how he’d just returned from conquering our enemy’s strongholds.
If that was so, why had he pulled half of the border guard with him to march back home? How would they hold Saluud against the Kingdom of Arven? I spat on the ground, uncaring of who saw me. I liked Navid not at all, finding him to be a smugger version of Baraz. He was not his brother. My nostrils and eyes told me all I wanted to know of this man as he passed.
Dog barked as Legs trotted past, and he came to a quick halt, his long-legged dog sliding to a stop beside him.
“Captain Goren?” He stared at me in surprise.
I smiled at him. His face was long and narrow, much like his dog’s face. His ears weren’t long, furry, and droopy like his dog’s though. Still, the two of them shared much in the way of appearance and mannerisms. They were both very alert and jumpy, but I knew him to be a steadfast companion. Maybe that’s why it hurt me to see him wearing the red wolf’s head device of General Navid.
I stepped out of the crowd and drew Legs into a hug. “I’ve missed you, Legs.” I wouldn’t use his civilized name, even if I knew he went by Zarek in normal situations. To me, he’d always be Legs, part of Pack Panj, from our time in the Kennel.
“It is good to see you, Go.” He grinned, using my familiar name as well. It was the way of our kind. If we knew our true names, we would use them amongst ourselves.
“We need to talk.” I whispered into his ear, tone relaying my seriousness completely.
He nodded ever so slightly, replying, “There is much to tell, Captain.”
“Seek me out in the scribe’s village north of the royal residence as soon as you can get away.”
Legs nodded and fell back into his position in the honor guard without a second look back. He was swift enough that it seemed as if he’d never missed a step, but General Navid had noticed. Our eyes met, and I held my face expressionless, even as his darkened.
Did he know what I was? Likely, seeing Dog beside me. Did he know who I was? He was a clever man, and it would not surprise me if he recognized me, even though we’d never been formally introduced. I was not a thing to hold his attention for long, at least, because he had more officials and courtiers to impress with his arrival, but I doubted he’d forget me.
I followed them, using my knowledge of the layout of the palace to circumvent crowds and obstacles. Dog and I were like shadows, mirroring the General’s movements as we recorded the faces of those who seemed most pleased by his arrival, as well as those who seemed least enamored of his boastful proclamations of victory at Saluud. A few, I could put names with faces, but they were few indeed.
Eventually, most of his guards peeled away, leaving only Navid and two of his most sturdy companions, both of which moved with the deadly confidence only the most efficient warriors managed. I frowned and continued through the palace to a meeting room where the Emperor, the Empress, and Minister Kalb awaited General Navid.
Kalb had let me know where to meet them, so I’d hidden my court scribe’s uniform ahead of time in a nearby room. I made the switch quickly, and proceeded into the room ahead of the General’s arrival without Dog. Dog disliked leaving me in a situation like this, but he obeyed. He understood the need for stealth when stalking prey. A dog would draw too much attention, even if I wore a disguise.
I’d not been in this audience room before, not for any official purpose, but I knew what it was, and I’d peeked in from three different entry points during my explorations. I chose the most discrete entrance and slid in quietly. Kalb noticed me immediately, raised an eyebrow as I took an inconspicuous location at the side with other officials, and then studiously ignored me. The Emperor and Empress gave no sign whether they’d noticed me or not, but I suspected that both had.
From my seat, I ignored curious glances from the other officials near me, studying the room instead. It was stately without being overstated or lavish. The raised platform at the end had simple chairs, not thrones, but when the Emperor sat on a chair, he elevated it to the status of a throne. He was just that sort of person. Similarly, the Empress sat with grace upon a cushioned chair beside him, making it both elegant and stately by her pose and the simple sophistication of her silk gown, which carefully emphasized her growing belly.
I smiled at the signal the Empress was giving to what she clearly thought of as a rival. It was clearly done on purpose. The Empress played a dangerous game. Did she know how dangerous? Did she suspect Navid as I did, or was this just a game of position and jockeying for strength?
Navid entered at long last, not waiting to be announced. He doffed his helmet and carried it at his side, under his arm and upon his hip. If he’d just traveled across the kingdom, it was hard to tell. His clothes had little sign of dust, and his face, having been under the helmet, had only the slightest trace of sweat upon it. He strode in powerfully, his other hand resting on his sword hilt. He offered the slightest bow, smiling broadly at his brother and his brother’s wife.
“Navid.” Emperor Baraz named his brother with obvious displeasure.
“Brother.” Navid responded warmly, ignoring any negative expression on his brother’s face. He nodded to the Empress next. “Sister.”
She was not his actual sister, obviously, but he named her so with familiarity because it placed him on a level with her. She was his brother’s wife, and a sister-in-law was much less of a threat than an Empress.
The Empress inclined her head, neither warmly nor coolly. It was just a simple shift of her head. She adjusted her skirts and crossed her legs the opposite way, resting both hands on her belly, once more emphasizing her pregnant state.
Navid’s expression tightened ever so slightly, likely imperceptibly to anyone without my senses. “I have come with great news of victory, brother!”
“You mean of war?” Kalb interrupted.
Navid looked taken aback at being questioned by the minister. “War? Far from it. We have taken Saluud almost bloodlessly and we hold it with ease. The Kingdom of Arven has very little chance of retaking it without a terrible cost. We hold the upper hand for certain.”
Kalb glared imposingly down at the general from where he stood beside the Emperor, looking twice his height even without the steps. Teeth stirred at his side. “And what of our other neighbors? Will they not turn their favor from us? Will they not see us as an aggressive threat? If we take every city that benefits us, we are conquerors, not peaceful neighbors. You overreach, thinking only of the short term, Navid.”
Navid shook his head and laughed derisively. “Strategy from a dog.”
When Teeth stood and growled, the two helmeted soldiers beside the general shifted their feet and twitched their hands, readying to pull blades if necessary, but Navid held up his hand. “Peace, minister. I mean only to speak to my brother, but, as always, you seek to interject your wisdom.”
The Emperor cleared his throat. “I have the utmost confidence in Minister Kalb’s assessment of the situation. I told you to watch the borders, not move on a neighboring, friendly country. Now, all of our neighbors will sharpen their sword and wonder which of them is next. Instead of seeking more favorable trade agreements, we will have to allay their fears and offer some recompense to Arven for taking their land.”
“A wolf does not apologize for its nature.” Navid scoffed. “Why do we bow and scrape and dance around the issue? We needed that port. Saluud was a necessary annexation if we are to build our nation’s economy!”
“And I had plans for that, plans that would have assured a peaceful transition. Why do you think it was so unguarded? Was it a mistake that they had but a bare garrison in that city?” The Emperor steepled his hands, frowning deeply.
Navid looked lost for words. He swallowed hard and waited. The Emperor looked ready to say something in anger, but the Empress reached over and placed her hand on top of her husband’s hand. It had a calming effect, but the anger was still palpable.
“People fear a conqueror, kingdoms even more so. This is not how we build our nation.” Baraz said at last.
“I was seeking to create a future for our kingdom and our family.” Navid protested.
Emperor Baraz shook his head. “No, brother, you thought only of your own glories. You are not supposed to decide such things. That is why I am Emperor. You are a general, a leader of soldiers, and you go where I ask and fight when I ask you to fight.”
“I will never stop fighting to guarantee a future for my nieces and this family,” Navid’s eyes strayed toward the Empress at this, “and some day in the future, they will have need of a kingdom that has no fears from its neighbors.”
Kalb took a step down, lifting a hand like a proper statesman. “Arven is a kingdom of merchants and sailors. They understand trade and honor their deals. Contracts are law to them, and they always follow the letter of the law. You’ve slapped them across the face and taken with force that which we would’ve been given for proper compensation. We will still have to compensate them, only more for their losses and this insult to their honor. Future dealings with them will forever be fraught with doubt because of your deeds.”
Baraz glanced at Kalb, who stepped back without being told to. “Amongst kingdoms, there must be trust. My word, the word of our nation, it must mean something, or we are just bandits and raiders. Is that what you would have of me?”
“No, brother.” Navid put on an expression that indicated he had been properly chastised, but I could hear in his breathing and his heartrate that he was anything but. “What would you have of me? Would you have me deliver the payment to Arven? I will make amends if I must. It is, after all, my fault. Perhaps if you’d told me what you planned instead of keeping me in the dark…”
Baraz saw where this was going. “I tell you what you need to know. Do not think to shift blame to me.”
Navid winced. “I didn’t mean to…”
“Don’t mince words with me. I know you too well.” Baraz snarled.
“Brother, tell me what you would have of me then.” Navid implored.
“You can do nothing. Sit in the palace and stay out of trouble. The Kingdom of Arven deserves to hear this from me. I am responsible for you, and I will have to handle this.”
The Empress grimaced. She did not want to be separated from her husband, not when her child was due soon. For her sake, I hoped he’d at least be able to stay until the child was born before heading to the border to meet with the merchant’s council of Arven.
“As you wish, brother.” Navid lowered his head, jaw tight, but was there the slightest hint of a smile there?
“Yes, as I wish.” Baraz repeated, waving his brother off.
Navid’s face as a complicated mask of control. He longed to say something and react, but he did not. He swallowed it down and bowed deeply. Then he turned on his heel, replacing his helmet. His soldiers fell in beside him.
If I thought that those moments with Nokomi would quickly lead to more, I was wrong. At least, there were no more invitations during the rest of the week or the next, not even over the weekends. Perhaps my novelty had worn off? I’d seen Halina once or twice, possibly following me, but she maintained her distance, and I was careful to give no indication that I knew she was following me.
Instead, Dog and I worked the palace grounds, sometimes as a soldier with a dog, other times as a scribe without. Dog made it harder to go unnoticed, so we practiced separation, with him hiding where he could, sitting in wait in an empty room or an unoccupied corner of this garden or that one. Even with some separation, we could still feel one another, and my more acute senses did not fade as long as I kept some part of my mind focused on our bond. Even if we had been separated by enough distance to affect our bond, my senses and reflexes were still far beyond those of a normal human.
We worked and learned until the weekend, which brought to mind the market days from my childhood, when I’d worked for Adish. He’d given me my week’s pay on the sixth day of the week, allowing me to spend my money as I pleased on the end days of the week, days seven and eight. I’d learned the value of money, ate some delicious grilled rat, and explored the shops with Dog.
How I longed to go back into the city and wander the labyrinth of tents, booths, and stalls. It was a simple pleasure to wander among so many sights, sounds and smells. There was some small, mundane version of the market put on in the palace courtyard for the sake of the officials and palace staff who could not bother to go to the markets or the Grand Bazaar, but it was such a pale imitation that I cared little to explore it, except to study the people, and even that I cared little for.
Instead, Dog and I spent our second weekend reporting our findings to Kalb, who similarly shunned such gatherings, even more so as he aged. I returned to his offices, as before, and we spoke at length.
“I understand you took tea with the princess the week past.” Kalb remarked casually, but there was more than a hint of accusation in his tone.
I shrugged. That was not something I would deny, especially when he already knew the truth. “I will not refuse a summons.”
“Nor should you.” Kalb agreed, but he still eyed me with suspicion.
I smiled affably and took a direct tactic. “What is it that you really want to say, Kalb?”
“I understand the allure she must hold for you. You are bonded, and you are both so young and idealistic… and she is beautiful.” He watched me for a reaction.
I said nothing, allowing him to continue.
Kalb frowned at me, and Teeth shifted uneasily, feeling Kalb’s discomfort at the subject being discussed. “You do realize she is meant for another, right?”
“Yes. It has been explained to me at least twice.”
“And that means that no matter how close you get to her, no matter how you feel about her, you will never be the one for her. Even if you somehow managed to capture her heart, her body and her position as princess – those would belong to another.”
I flashed my teeth at him. Dog growled at the truth being offered so plainly to us. Kalb may say what he wanted, but I knew how her hand upon mine had felt.
“See? You have thought of it. I know that the Empress requested that you observe her interactions with suitors, several of which have just arrived. She will become the wife of another, and you will have to smile and guard her even as she marries another man, bears his children, and has a family without you.”
“Why are you saying all of this?” I hissed.
“Because you need to understand where you stand in this, foolish boy. It gives me no pleasure, but do you think I cannot see how you look at her?” He shook his head sadly. “It is natural at your age to feel such things. Your bond with her makes it even harder. You feel more of her than you should. Women are supposed to be mysterious – that is their nature – but part of her soul will always be bared to you, because of that bond you share. Yet, even with that bond, you two can never be together.”
“It must have been easier for you then to be bonded to the Emperor then, and not the Empress.” I replied sharply. “How would that have been for you?”
“I don’t know. It never happened, and I am happy that it never did, because I never had to deal with that test.” He wasn’t going to worry about hypotheticals. He’d lived too long a life to worry about such things.
“But you never became anything more than his guard and his minister. What of your life, Kalb? You have gifts and talents, the things granted by your Old Blood nature. Why was that never passed on to children? Couldn’t your own offspring serve the Emperor? Why not indenture your bloodline in perpetuity? How has he not demanded that of you?”
“Who is to say what I have done?” He demanded, a true look of anger upon his bearded face. “What do you know of my life, Go? Other than the few weeks we’ve spent together over these years, what do you know? I may have taught you all I know of being a beast, but what have you really learned of me?”
I stared at him, shocked. I’d never considered him as a father. Dog stirred at my side, looking at Kalb with new consideration. “And do you have children, Kalb?”
“My life is my own. It is of no concern of yours.” It sounded like a confirmation, even if he wouldn’t say it.
“And mine? What is my life to be? And what if she decides that she wants me as more than a guardian?” I asked.
It was a hope and a dream. I’d watched my fellow soldiers, dogs and boys like me, as they’d interacted with the women we’d come across in our tours across the land. I’d understood what they did and how they acted, but it had never been for me. Dog and I had always been apart, not matter how close we seemed to our peers at meals and on the battlefields. There was something that kept us separate, and that something was Nokomi. I realized that I’d always been waiting for her. I’d never be able to give myself to another, not while I was bonded to her.
Kalb shook his head sadly, feeling pity for one as naïve as myself. “A princess is a bargaining chip in a kingdom, Go. Her life is no more her own than yours is. She is not her own to give to anyone. A touch, a stolen kiss… no more could come of such things, nothing more than pain.”
“There is more. We could be more.”
“But you won’t.” He insisted.
“Would you stand in our way if that was what she wanted?” How that would test his loyalties. Even if he’d softened in his old age, would he ever defy the Emperor’s wishes for his daughter?
“Would you defy the Emperor, the Empress, the duty of a princess to her nation, and the entire kingdom by yourself?” Kalb asked, and something in his eyes feared my answer. He did not want to be put at odds with me. He needed me, and he didn’t want to have to fight me.
In that moment, I didn’t care. I could only be honest. “I would do whatever she asked of me. Anything. Everything. We are pack.”
Kalb snorted. “Foolish children. You don’t know what you say.”
“Maybe, but I know what I want, and that is for me to be what she wants me to be, whatever that is. I cannot deny her.”
Kalb leaned forward in his chair, eyes glowing yellow. “And if it is just a servant or guardian she wants you to be, will you be satisfied with that?”
I met his gaze defiantly, challenging him. “I will have to be. I live to serve her.” My words might have sounded sure, but the twist in my guts made me realize I would not be. We were pack, and I would do what I could for her, but even I had my limits.
“Then start serving her by being at the gates at dawn. Serve her by watching her uncle’s return.”
“General Navid is coming here?” I paused. I had not seen the man for many months, and I’d never met him in anything more than passing.
Kalb nodded. “He arrives tomorrow. He could have easily arrived today, but that man’s pride would not allow him to arrive on a market day. He will not have competition for his ‘triumphant’ return.”
“Triumphant? What has he triumphed over? We are not at war.”
“Are you certain?” Kalb gritted his teeth and tugged at Teeth’s scruff. Teeth grumped at him, but endured it. “You recall the map that the Emperor was looking over when you arrived?”
“It’s changed. Despite orders, General Navid took it upon himself to take Saluud from the Kingdom of Arven, along our eastern border. He claims it was to secure a better deep water port for our kingdom, so we no longer have to pay them for shipping rights, but it was more likely for his own glory. The Emperor is furious, and he has called him back.”
“The timing is curious, with the Empress pregnant.”
“Indeed.” Kalb stood, going to a wall where an older map was hung between two tapestries of dogs hunting. “That’s why I want you there. I need you to shadow him. Learn what you can of him.”
“You think he’s the one.”
Kalb turned to face me, his face grave and serious. “Never say that aloud again, even if you think you are only in my company. Things have a way of being heard when we least expect them to be.”
“Get out of here, and try not to let your passions put you at odds with your mission, Go.”
“That sounds strikingly like fatherly advice.” I remarked, unable to resist taunting him just a little.
“If you were my child, I would beat some sense into you.” There was a slight smile with that threat, but the flash in his eyes told me that he still thought he could beat me in a fight.
I wasn’t so sure. “Do you think you still could?” Dog nipped at my hand, as if to warn me to shut my mouth.
Teeth sat up and Kalb growled at me, with at least a hint of genuine anger. “Get out of here, and be at the gate tomorrow.”
Kalb was not one to stick spies and cutthroats around the royal family without them knowing of it. So, he quickly came up with excuses for me to happen across the royal couple at different places over the next few hours. Or, rather, I should say that he’d already planned for them ahead of time, fully expecting my cooperation. I’d say that was presumptuous of him, but he knew me well.
The meetings were deftly managed, with each one happening without any pomp or circumstance. It was done in such a way that it didn’t seem as if I were an understudy or assistant to him, so others wouldn’t take note of me traveling around the palace with him. Rather, it was more like he was introducing them to a new tool they would have at their disposal. He simply told me when and where to meet him, and he had things arranged beforehand to work out.
We met first with Emperor Baraz, as was only right. He’d been a prominent figure in my childhood, even before I knew his position. After all, he’d been the one who had broken up the joyous first meeting I’d had with Nokomi all those years ago. His soldiers and Kalb had stumbled across me bleeding on his daughter in that alley, standing over the corpse of the dead desert cat. I’d fled and hid safely away that time. My second meeting with Nokomi and Kalb had not ended with another escape.
The Emperor had changed little since I’d last seen him, though I could only count our meetings on one hand. He still dressed more like a general than a king. He wore fine clothes, but he wore them in a simple military fashion. Even the expensive sword buckled at his waist was a functional weapon, one he knew very well how to use, I’d heard. As of yet, I’d never seen him draw and use his sword, though he had offered it to me once to execute a fellow student at the Kennel. In the end, I’d used my own teeth and claws to kill him instead, avenging a friend and pack member whose dog had been murdered.
The Emperor was a man used to avoiding small talk. He had always been about business when I’d seen him. I imagined he had softer moments when he was alone amongst family, but it was difficult to imagine him being anything but the rigid, imposing leader I saw before me now.
We met him in a library, of all places. I knew how to read, but did not relish in it, unless it happened to be orders detailing a particularly favorable new assignment back at the palace.
The Emperor’s library was an immaculate, richly-outfitted hall with row upon row of glowing reddish shelves, all stuffed with carefully labeled scrolls and books. A few attendants hovered near the entrances, maintaining their posts in silence, waiting to be called to assist in finding a specific material. The Emperor was leaning over a table, reviewing a large scroll that he’d spread across the table. Kalb arrived from the south door, and I approached from the east just moments after him.
Emperor Baraz did not look up as we approached and took our places across the table from him. My eyes roamed across the scroll, actually a map detailing troop positions and border garrisons. I recognized several areas I’d been, where the dog soldiers and I had shifted some of those lines in our kingdom’s favor. This one was more up-to-date than the last I’d seen, I assumed.
After clenching his jaw and frowning at the map, the Emperor looked up at us. He nodded briefly to Kalb and Teeth before looking over and Dog and me. What he saw when he looked at us, I could not tell, but he certainly knew who we were. We’d left quite an impression on him when he’d seen us shift into the beastlike creature we’d become to kill Drum, the boy at the Kennel. Even in the years since, on the rare chances we’d crossed each other’s paths, he still had a guarded look about him when he looked upon us.
“Captain Goren, returned from the border.” Baraz said smoothly. A significant look passed between him and Kalb. He clearly knew the reasons behind our return.
“Sir.” I bowed deeply. Dog actually lowered his eyes to the floor, too.
Baraz shook his head. “It is still so strange to see the two of you together. I’d always thought Kalb to be something special, and yet here you are. Here we are. The things we’ve done together, they’ve built a stronger nation. Our borders are secure. My lineage is secure.”
“And we wish to keep it that way.” Kalb said warily. Teeth growled deep in his throat.
“Vigilance… I know.” Baraz nodded. “Things are about to get more difficult from here out. I am glad to have someone else I can trust, someone that Kalb trusts to keep an extra eye on my family. There is no duty more important that I could ask of either of you.”
I lowered my head again in a slight bow, not knowing what else to say or do.
“Go with my blessing, and do Kalb’s will. Listen to him, learn from him, and protect my family.” Baraz dismissed us with that, going back to his map and a smaller scroll, where he scratched notes with a quilled pen.
I did not bother him with a response, empty words about doing my best or seeing to it. Instead, I bowed stiffly at the waist and retreated from the room, exiting from the same way I’d come in.
We met with the Emperor’s wife, Empress Anahita, next. She was someone I’d never met. I’d seen statues and paintings of her, but I did not know what to expect. Baraz was such a hard man, and Nokomi was like a breath of fresh air to me. What sort of woman could handle the Emperor and produce a daughter such as Nokomi? I found myself looking forward to the meeting.
This second meeting was in a private garden, one nestled between the palace and the royal residence. As I made my way there from the expansive halls of the palace building, the royal residence came into view. It was a giant domed building with a second dome built atop it. The lower dome was broad and wide, with a shallow incline to its ribbed roof. The upper dome was smaller and more steeply rounded, built with sparkling copper tiles that glittered like snake scales. That second dome was topped with a modest turret and a flag bearing the arms of the royal family: a flame at the center of two crossed swords set upon a red field.
At the four corners of this large residence were towers, each attached at an ordinal direction. The nearest of these towers to me was the northwest tower, which was topped with a bell-shaped structure painted in blue. I could see the southwestern tower further away, that one topped in green. Between these towers was the Empress’ private garden, but to get to that, one had to pass through another set of walls.
As I’ve said before, the palace was a series of walls within walls, each one more exclusive than the last. To get to the royal family, you had to pass through several checkpoints, and this was no different. Kalb had given me a pass, an engraved metal signet I could show when needed. I wore it on a chain around my neck, as I was not going to start wearing rings. Rings might very well cause serious difficulties if I were to bring out my beast, perhaps even slicing off a finger.
With the signet, I was allowed beyond that wall. The guards silently let me by, but they carried themselves very professionally. These were some of the best I’d seen yet about the palace. One more gate brought me to the Empress’ gardens. Not just anyone was allowed in. The Empress would already know I was coming, or I’d not be permitted to enter.
Kalb was already there, sitting in a corner, far away from the action. He played with his dog, lavishing Teeth in a rare show of affection. His momentary display of youthfulness made it clear he would be ignoring the Empress and me as we spoke.
The Empress was unattended, surprisingly. There were not servants waiting to wipe her hands for her, to fetch her a cool drink, or to carry her on a sedan chair. It was just her in the garden, which was modest when compared to the palace courtyard, but not small by any means.
This garden, unlike the courtyard, made no attempt to be lush and verdant. No, this one was a testament to the harsh beauty of the desert. Instead of fish ponds and flowering shrubs that needed constant watering, this garden was filled with barrel-shaped cactuses and desert trees that needed little tending. This is not to say that they could not be beautiful. They could, certainly, but they hid their beauty, waiting for one of those rare rains, after which they would reveal their hidden treasures for those who happened to be patient enough to wait for them.
Empress Anahita stood beneath a tree I recognized as a myrrh tree. Its resin and sap could be collected and used in remedies or gathered for its scent. The bark was rough, and the tree was twisted and gnarled, but it had been artfully pruned and shaped.
I approached slowly, so as not to seem overly eager or to startle her, since she appeared lost in thought. Dog’s feet whispered across the sand beside me.
The Empress tilted her head up to look at the tree, smiled to herself, and turned to face us. So I was able to see her truly for the first time. I could see where Nokomi got her warm eyes. She had much of her mother in her, though her mother’s hair was thicker, falling in dark braids to her waist, which was swollen with child. She wore simple linen, but had no need for ornament, because she had one of the most stunning faces I’d ever beheld. Even though she was older than Nokomi, her face had aged well, offering a mature sort of grace that was only accentuated by her pregnant state. She radiated fertility and nobility, and the heat that came off her skin was noticeable from even a pace away. Fire-blooded indeed.
“Empress.” Dog sat at my feet, tongue lolling out as I bowed.
Strangely, faced with the Empress instead of the Emperor, Dog felt no compunction to offer any humility or show of submissiveness. Instead, he rolled over on his back and put his feet in the air, scratching his back happily on the sand. After sneezing once, he regained his feet and looked at me.
The Empress’ mouth quirked into a smile as she regarded Dog. “You are the boy and dog I have heard my husband say so much about over the years.”
I lifted my head and met her eyes briefly, noting genuine warmth within them. “I suppose I am, although I did not know he spoke of me at all or often.”
“Oh, get him and Kalb together, and you come up in conversation often enough. They have plans for you, Go, many of them. Plans and expectations.”
I smiled softly, pleased that she knew my real name. “And do you have plans of your own for me, Empress?” I inquired quietly.
She took a step over to me, reaching out her warm fingertips and touching me on the chin to lift my face until I stared back into her eyes. Her warm eyes flashed with inner light, reflecting the fire that ran through her veins. I felt a tremble of something inside me, something I could not put a name to.
“Women of have special powers, Go. We can do things that even the men cannot. Oh, my family may all have the fire within us, the ability to destroy, but only the women can create. Baraz is very good at what he does, conquering and holding on to what he has taken, but to truly keep it, he needs what I have inside of me.”
“Your son.” I whispered.
She smiled, letting my chin go finally. My skin felt feverish where she’d touched me, and the scar upon my forehead burned.
“He will be part of it, but we do not have a single child. Neema and Nokomi will be important if we are truly going to hold this land. They will have to make connections to secure our future. Do you know what that means?”
I said nothing, going very still. Dog whined at my side.
“They will marry, Go. They will take generals, or the richest merchants, or the sons of neighboring kings as consorts. We will cement ourselves into this place until you cannot remove our family from this land, because we will be the root of it. To do that, we have to connect.”
“And where do I fit in that?” I asked.
“Where indeed?” She placed her hands on her swollen belly and stepped back toward the tree, rubbing her fingers across the resin and bringing them to her nose.
“Nokomi will need someone beside her,” she said thoughtfully, “someone to keep her safe, to be her friend. Someone to help her navigate her way through her suitors.”
“Suitors?” The word tasted foul in my mouth. I hoped it did not show on my face.
“She will be meeting with those who wish to use her position for gain. I will have you there, a shadow watching over. You will report back to me what you think of them.”
“You want me to spy on your daughter when she meets these men who would marry her?” I didn’t know how I could remain loyal to Nokomi and spy upon her, but Kalb had insisted that I follow the orders of all of the royal family.
The Empress’ head swiveled my way. “You can do that, can’t you?”
“Yes, Empress.” I bowed my head. I would have to, no matter how little I liked it.
“Good. See to it.” She said it in a dismissive way, and I knew I was done with my audience. “And Go?” She called as I started off toward the gate I’d entered through.
I turned back. “Yes, Empress?”
“It was nice to meet you. Kalb has told me you are to be trusted, and I take his advice much to heart. Thank you for your service.”
I bowed deeply, and then hurried off. Kalb made no move to join me this time. I knew to head to my quarters then, and it was just as well. I wanted to be alone with Dog, to think.
Kalb regarded me and gave a gruff bark that was something between reproach and greeting.
After meeting the princess, I’d proceeded into the palace, leaving behind the pleasantness of the courtyard to find my way through the labyrinth of passages to the offices of Minister Kalb. If Dog and I had less keen senses of smell, we’d likely have had to ask directions a dozen times, but we knew Kalb’s smell very well.
As one of the Emperor’s advisors, he maintained his own meeting rooms within the palace. This was one of such rooms. It was spartan in style, lacking comforts that he did not require. Kalb was a hard man, and it would unnerve most visitors who expected opulence from an important advisor, not a hard, militaristic aesthetic.
I cared little of his décor and much about what he would say. I knew he was not truly angry with me, no matter how gruff his front was. Even so, his yellow eyes were still piercing, even with the cataracts that were beginning to cloud them. At his side, his massive dog, Teeth, was licking his chops.
Teeth was easily one of the largest dogs I’d ever met, and I’d met a lot. I could only think of one or two other dogs near his size. He was thick and heavily muscled with a thick coat of short, dark hair and even thicker skin. He was easily as heavy as a grown man, heavier than most, and twice as strong. I’d seen his teeth puncture pieces of plate mail once or twice. His canines had sunk into flesh even through leather and metal gauntlets.
“Sir… or should I call you minister?” I inclined my head respectfully to my closest teacher.
“Go.” Kalb said my true name, not the one I’d taken in an affectation of a civilized man. “Your little stunt out there greeting the princess will not go unnoticed. There are eyes on her at all times. Now, you will be of interest.”
I nodded. Clearly our meeting had not gone unnoticed if he’d already heard of it. It didn’t surprise me that one of the Emperor’s closest advisors had spies in the palace. It probably would have surprised me if he hadn’t heard of my meeting with the princess. It just meant he was doing his job in watching over the royal family, and I knew from our years of association that he took that duty with full seriousness.
“The blue-eyed girl, Halina. She carries a knife.” I remarked.
Kalb grunted and settled heavily into his chair, an old piece of furniture that was well-worn around the arms. “And she knows how to use it. The girls I put at the princess’ side are more than just pretty faces that know how to serve tea.”
“Good.” I meant it. Her safety meant everything to me. We were pack. “I take it I will also be set to protecting her?”
Kalb waved me closer. I approached one of the hard-backed chairs that was arranged in a semicircle in front of him, but chose to stand instead. Kalb noticed my reluctance to sit.
“You’re a beast, Go, more comfortable in the wilds than in places more civilized.” He observed.
“I know.” I admitted. Dog gave his best impression of a human grin. If he could have smiled, he would have.
“It was not a judgement. I understand it well. You have no idea how often I wish to tear my clothes off and run wild in the sand and scrublands, away from these careful streets and the unpleasant complexities and niceties of palace life. How I wish to run with the dogs, to hunt and kill with my teeth.” Kalb sighed, sharing a look with Teeth, who clearly echoed his sentiments.
“But you have responsibilities that make such a simple existence impossible…” I offered.
“That’s part of it. The other part is getting old.” Kalb answered. “Do you know how old I am?”
I shrugged, but knew he wanted an answer. I took in the grey in Kalb’s beard and the deep lines creasing his forehead and the corners of his eyes. His hands, too, looked old. The knuckles were redder and more swollen than I remembered. “Sixty-five?” I guessed.
Kalb laughed. “Do I look so bad as that? I am only forty-six, Goren. We age quickly, as a balance to our dogs living longer.”
There was some truth to this. I knew that most dogs only lived perhaps a dozen years, maybe eighteen at the most. Yet all of the men I’d trained had been with their dogs for five to ten years, some even longer, and their dogs still moved with the vigor of youth, as if they were only three to five years old.
“There is so much shared in our bonds, Go. We share scents, thoughts, and feelings. We gain the strength and speed of the beasts, and they gain some of our intelligence. Our lives are also shared, as a measure of our lifespans are given to the dogs, keeping them alive with us. The trade-off is that we cannot live as long, but would we wish to live longer without our dogs beside us?”
“No.” I answered without hesitation, feeling the truth in my answer. Dog pressed his muzzle against my leg reassuringly.
“Time, Go. I’m running out of time, but our enemies won’t relent when I’m gone.” Kalb announced, clenching his hands into fists.
I’d never heard Kalb speak this way. He was always wary, protective, and dedicated to his path. Now, a bit of self-pity was creeping into his voice, but it came from a deep need to do his duty, something he seemed to feel he was becoming incapable of doing.
“What do you need of me, sir?”
“Emperor Baraz’s wife is pregnant.”
“Empress Anahita is having another child?” My mind whirled with the possibilities.
“It’s a boy.” Kalb whispered, just loud enough for me to hear. Even if our meeting was being listened upon, no one except one with the hearing of a dog would have been able to hear his words just then.
“How do you know?”
Kalb smiled toothily under his beard, amused that I would question him. “It is the way of their people, the fire-blooded. A woman of the New Blood knows.”
That meant a lot of things. Emperor Baraz had two daughters, Neema, his eldest girl, and Nokomi, the younger one. Neema’s consort, when she took one, would be well-positioned to make a move on the throne, but Baraz’s brother had a stronger claim on the throne.
General Navid was an ambitious man, a pragmatic sort. I’d met him once or twice, mostly by accident, and always after a battle. He might not have known who or what I was, but I knew exactly who he was. He looked much like his brother, but taller, with a hawkish nose and a hard glint about his eyes.
Except, with a boy on the way, what would that mean for the line of succession? Even as a younger sibling, this baby would be the firstborn male in the line. His claim would take precedence. Even if something happened to Emperor Baraz, the girls would help raise him until he came of age. He would be the Emperor-in-waiting with the Empress or one of his older sisters serving as regent.
I chewed on that for a moment, and Kalb saw the realization settle in.
“So you see why you were recalled from the dusty edges of our land and brought back to a place where you might be used more usefully?” He asked.
“What I did there was important.” I protested weakly.
Kalb favored me with a smile. “It was a delay, a chance to keep you out of the scenes for as long as I could, Go. Now, I have no choice. I needed someone here I could trust.”
“There are others…”
Kalb shook his head. “None like us, as you well know.”
Of the hundred or so dogs and boys I’d met, none were so close to the beast as Kalb and I. Others could take on some aspect of the beast, growing taller, becoming stronger, and perhaps even producing slightly elongated teeth or some simple sort of claws, but that was as far as they could go. Kalb and I, we were different. We could let the beast take control, becoming creatures that were neither man nor dog, but somewhere between the two.
I took a breath and met his eyes. “What would you have of me? Of us?”
“I had you stationed far away to keep your nature secret from those who should not know what we do. Now, you’re going to be my eyes and ears in the palace, my knife where it is needed. You cannot play these roles if you call too much attention to yourself. You must be circumspect in your actions, and you must be present without being noticeable.”
“Sir.” I nodded in acknowledgement. These things I could be, so long as they brought me near Nokomi, and so far it had.
“However,” Kalb favored me with a sad look, “I know this will be hard for you to hear, but I must insist that you stay away from the princess, as much as you can do so without slighting her.”
He waved a hand, cutting off my response. Dog growled, but Teeth growled louder, not that it made Dog back down.
“They can’t know of your connection. We serve the Emperor. We must protect his interests, and that means his whole family, not just Nokomi.”
“What you need, I will do.” I agreed reluctantly. He hadn’t said I could have no contact with her. I just needed to let her initiate it, or meet in secret, away from prying eyes and ears.
“Good.” Kalb relaxed visibly. “You must understand that with the news of this new child, the risk of attack has grown infinitely. I fear that our enemy’s patience will grow very thin. He will make a move, and in his haste, I hope he will finally expose himself.”
“And if he does, what do we do?”
“We tear his throat out to protect the ones we love, Go.” Kalb grinned ruthlessly.
I nodded. “We tear their throats out, sir. Every last one of them, no matter who they are.”
Kalb slid from his chair. He walked down to cast his arms around my shoulders. “I am glad you are home, Go. There is so much to do, and I fear we will not be able to do enough. We cannot fail.”
He was my most trusted teacher, and while I did not love him as I did Adish, who had been a very brief father figure to me, I did feel some affection toward the yellow-eyed man. He was the closest thing I had to a peer, the only one who understood what I was, what we were.
“Your eyes, ears, and your knife. I will be them all.” I promised him, meaning every word of it.
Dog growled in agreement, making a similar vow to Teeth, who barked in response.
When the Emperor left the next day, Kalb remained. He set to reordering the school, and, as promised, he involved me. We were creating something better, a place where we would all learn. I would teach these others to harness their own beasts.
Tiny and Bear were put off in a wing on their own. Once or twice, we caught glimpses of them, or we’d hear about how they were going for walks beyond the wall, walking or hunting together. They seemed like they might make it. It was still touch and go, but we had hope.
I’d come a long way. I’d started as a street boy with nothing but a dog. Now I had a whole pack. And, more importantly, I had a girl to get back to. Now that the Emperor knew of my bond with her, surely he would set me as her guard.
But first, I had to become the best version of myself. Dog would help me. Then our true pack would be reunited. It didn’t matter how long it would take. We would be together again.
We were pack.
It was eerily silent in the gallery, despite the presence of more people than I knew how to count. All thirty of the Emperor’s guards were there. Nearly as many auburn guards were there as well. Our four instructors were there, standing behind the Emperor and Kalb. They all faced us from the south side of the gallery as we were led out.
The whole of Pack Sefr came out from the north wing. We lined up in unity for the first time, each with a dog beside them, all of us except for Tiny, who stood only because Killer and Legs supported him where he stood. I was located in the middle of our group, standing directly opposed to the Emperor.
The whole place was lit with torch light. Some of the torches spat and hissed, still snapping from being recently lit. The smoke huddled in the still air, much of it not rising enough to be blown away up and over the roof. The haze lent to the strange air of severity on the sand.
“Bring out the accused.” The Emperor ordered.
Gates opened to permit Drum, who staggered and stumbled until he had to be carried by two guards. They threw him in a heap halfway between the Emperor and me. He was a mess – unwashed, unfed, and uncaring. He’d already given up on life. Bear was strangely absent, perhaps as a mercy to the animal. He would not have to witness his master’s death, not that he would feel it any less.
“Deliver the sentence to the prisoner.” The Emperor ordered.
I cleared my throat, suddenly finding it hard to speak. I’d never had to kill anyone before, let alone announce his death in front of such a crowd. One glance at Tiny gave me the strength I needed to continue.
“Drum is guilty of killing one of us. He is responsible for the death of Little Dog.” I announced. Dog lent me strength as well, standing tall beside me as I delivered the sentence.
Drum laughed and cried at once. “I am guilty.” He sobbed. “Kill me and be done with it.”
The Emperor drew his sword and handed it to Kalb. “This justice is administered in accordance with my will. Let it be done.”
“Wait!” Drum shouted, wheeling around to look at us all. His eyes were blurry and feverish. His chains rattled on his feet and ankles.
The Emperor froze, his sword still held out for Kalb’s waiting hands. “Speak.”
“What of my dog? What of Bear?” Drum asked.
“He will be allowed to live. If it is his will to live on, he may bond with another.” The Emperor explained.
Drum nodded sadly. “Thank you.” He managed to croak.
“The instrument of my justice.” The Emperor continued, letting Kalb take his blade this time.
Kalb carried it over to me, with Teeth following at his heels. Dog tensed beside me, as if this were wrong. I held out my hands anyway, taking the blade when it was offered.
I stared at the blade. It felt alien in my hands. Wrong. It was a finely-crafted blade, worth more than anything I’d ever touched, but it wasn’t right. I looked at Dog. He looked at me. He seemed to shake his head, but that was a very human description for the senses I felt coming from him.
“Emperor, if I might?” This had to be done right.
“What is it you require, executioner?” The Emperor asked a little impatiently. He was used to his will being carried out promptly when he asked.
“Drum is one of us, as much dog as human.” I explained. “If I might? Could I kill him in the manner of our kind? He is chained and being executed with a weapon. Should he not be killed while unbound, free in death if not life? And should I not kill him with my bare hands?”
At this, even some of the Emperor’s guards shifted uneasily. The Emperor looked dumbfounded. “The sword offers a clean death. It is merciful. What you suggest is crueler, is it not?” The Emperor looked to his advisor. “Kalb?”
Kalb looked at me, both surprised and a little afraid. “If it is their way?”
“Shall we ask Drum?” I suggested.
The Emperor looked uncomfortable at this, but asked anyway. “Drum. You have heard your options. Will you be executed unchained, falling under the hands of this man, or do you want to be put down quickly with my own blade?”
Drum looked up at me, his eyes focusing, if just for a moment. His eyes went to the sword, then back to me. “Kill me like a dog. Kill me with your own claws and teeth.”
It felt right. I looked to the Emperor for permission. He nodded, so I handed the sword back to Kalb. With a flick of the Emperor’s hands, the auburn guards unchained Drum and backed away quickly. Yet if they expected him to attack or attempt to flee, they were disappointed.
Drum made no move to escape. Instead, he rubbed his wrists and settled onto his knees on the sand. He looked up to me. “Do it.”
I nodded and looked to Dog. Dog tensed beside me, knowing what was coming next.
It started as a tingle along my scalp, a burning that spread through my body. The hairs on my neck stood up. I felt pain in my fingertips as my nails elongated. My face began to ache, and I felt my features distort into a half muzzle. My eyes blurred and then came into incredible focus. My muscles tightened like steel wires strung taut across my bones.
Kalb stiffened beside me. Perhaps he’d never seen someone else do what he could. I glanced at him, seeing myself mirrored in his eyes. His eyes glowed yellow, as if just seeing me change was a contagious thing that he was just barely holding back. At his side, Teeth stood apprehensively, cowed by my presence.
The Emperor stood stock still, his jaw clenched tight. I saw him nod, but the smell of fear coming from around the gallery was terribly sweet. Few had seen a man come so close to beast before, perhaps not even the Emperor himself.
I took a step over to Drum, who lifted his chin, offering his neck for slicing. He looked up suddenly, meeting my beastly gaze. “Take care of Bear.” He whispered.
Then I tore out his throat. My claws ripped through his flesh with ease. His shredded voice box bubbled and whistled. His eyes bulged, and he hit the ground, bleeding out into the sand.
As he gasped his last, I threw my head back and howled. A chorus of barks and howls erupted from the gallery: all of Pack Sefr and Kalb as well. Dogs and boys, we made an awful racket in the still night.
Distantly, I felt something in that moment, a connection. Had Nokomi felt me? Had I felt her?
When it was over, I bowed to the Emperor, and then I bowed once more to my pack. They returned the bow.
I let go of the beast, for now.
Someday soon, I would need it again, and I would call it.
The guards outside the north gates relayed my message to the instructors, who came at once.
“Let him out.” Green ordered. “Only him. His dog stays on that side of the gate.”
I frowned at that. Did they really think I would attack them? What would I gain from that? Was that how far they trusted me now? Only I was permitted out into the gallery. The four instructors surrounded me with a dozen guards ringing us in.
I glanced around, but saw no sign of the Emperor or of Kalb.
“What have you all decided?” Green inquired. A worried look flashed over his features before he clamped down on it. The look vanished, and once again he was all business.
I regarded the four nearly-identical faces. They were all grave as I began to explain what we had decided, and they grew more severe as I finished. “I will execute Drum personally. Then, we will separate Tiny and Drum’s dog, Bear, so they have a chance to bond. We don’t want to lose Tiny.”
“How does he know about that?” Red hissed at Green.
“Sardar told you?” Green looked incredulous.
“We all know.” I assured them.
“There were mistakes at the beginning, Go.” Grey offered apologetically. “We were learning. It only happened once, and we have changed the way we do things since then.”
“Maybe it was a mistake, but there will be more changes.” I smiled secretively.
“Oh?” Green’s eyes narrowed.
“I will explain what’s going to happen when the Emperor and his advisor are present.”
“You will explain…” Red scoffed. “You will explain nothing to the Emperor! You are here as a servant of the Emperor! You will do his bidding.”
I shrugged. “That may be true, but he will hear my demands, or we will no longer participate. None of us will.”
“We?” Blue asked. A look dawned on his face, and I think he got it far before the others. He must have realized that we were united.
Red snorted a laugh. “You mean you and your new little crew? Pack Panj is a small piece of this place. How dare you presume to speak for them all.”
I shook my head. “Panj is no more, Red. We are Sefr.”
“Sefr? There is no Pack Sefr.” Red replied.
“We are all Sefr now. All or nothing.” I repeated.
Blue put a restraining hand on Red’s forearm when he looked as if he might say more. “Red... Stop.”
“What do you mean stop? How dare this upstart tell us what to do? We are the leaders of this place.” Red insisted.
“Not anymore.” I said defiantly. I was feeling bold, and I must admit there was a fair chance a smirk stole across my face.
Red’s face flushed and he made as if to hit me, but there was a bark from across the gallery, in the second floor box. Red turned to find a pair of yellow eyes glaring down on him from across the sand. The four instructors froze.
“Things are going to change.” Green muttered.
Kalb, satisfied that the aggression had ended, turned on his heels and marched off from the gallery. Only minutes later, he emerged from the south gates with the Emperor at his side. This time, there were no royal guards with them.
The Emperor strode purposefully across the sand, hand on his sword hilt. He spoke in low tones to Kalb as he went, low enough that even I could not hear. Clearly, he was a man used to our abilities and limitations. It raised his worth in my esteem, but I still could not forgive him for putting me here, for separating me from Nokomi, even if she was his daughter.
My four instructors lowered their heads and bowed, Red deepest of all, as the Emperor took his place beside us. I mirrored their bows. Kalb and Teeth waited beside Emperor Baraz, waiting for him to speak first.
“You have come to a consensus? A decision has been made?” The Emperor asked of me. He was straight to the point, not one to waste time.
“The packs have come together as one to support my decision.” I let the implications of that settle in.
“And?” The Emperor asked.
“I will execute Drum.” I lifted my chin and dared him to deny me.
“You would do this yourself?” The Emperor looked surprised at this.
He gave me a hard look, as if wondering if I could do this thing, or maybe wondering how it would change me to do so. “And if I tell you that he is too valuable to lose?”
“I would tell you that you are mistaken. Then I would kill him anyway at some point in the near future.”
The Emperor looked to his advisor and frowned. “Quite a bloodthirsty little boy we have here, is it not?”
Kalb’s eyebrow rose and his mouth twitched into a smile beneath his beard. “It appears so.”
“It is what you made me.” I explained.
The Emperor turned his gaze to the four instructors then. “Do you hear him? He says I, through you and this place, have made a murderer of him.”
“Emperor…” Green began.
“Silence!” The Emperor growled. “I will not hear your half-hearted explanations. I will not hear excuses. I know of the many mistakes that have occurred in this place. I know that we need to make changes.”
He took a deep breath then continued, “I need men that can make hard choices, and I need loyalty. What I do not need is murderers made from alley brats.”
“It is loyalty that compels this murder, Emperor, loyalty to my pack.” I explained.
“And which pack is that?” Kalb wondered.
I grinned toothily. “Pack Sefr. We are all, or we are nothing.”
Kalb whispered something to the Emperor, and the Emperor’s eyes swept back my way. He said nothing for a long moment, and then spoke to Kalb instead. “These boys have value, but only if they turn out as I need them. I may need them to kill without hesitation, but only when directed, and only in the service of this kingdom. I need someone here that I can trust to make sure these boys are trained as I need.”
“You are asking me?” Kalb looked from the Emperor back to me, appraisingly.
“You will begin dividing your attention between here and the capital. At least a week a month will have to be spent here, more at first.”
“Emperor,” Kalb looked alarmed, “we are about business of the highest importance in the capital. My absence will mean…”
“I will make do without you, Kalb. It is not forever, and I know I can count on you being there when it is most important.”
I recalled something of the conversation I’d had with Kalb when I’d been under arrest. When would the next attempt on the Emperor’s life come? Would we be ready by then? Would thwarting the next assassination be part of what we would be called to do?
Kalb shook his head but looked resigned to do as told. Teeth settled onto the sand beside him, as if already getting comfortable with the place.
“There is more, Emperor.” I announced. I wasn’t sure how much more I could push my luck, but this was the time, if ever. Who could say when he would next visit. It might be months, even years before I saw his face again.
“I’m not sure I want to hear more from you.” The Emperor declared. I waited. We all did. Finally, the Emperor sighed and waved his hand. “Say your piece, then.”
I took a breath and then launched into my plan, “This place has been segregated into groups that caused divisions and strife among us. We have all joined into a new pack, a single pack to serve you. As a united pack, we must demand that the instruction here changes. We need to adjust instruction to create cooperation and growth, not vicious competition. Each of us should be able to stand on our own when needed, but it is as a collective group that we are strongest. That is how we should be used.”
“This one thinks to explain strategy to me.” The Emperor laughed.
“And yet he is not entirely wrong.” Kalb pulled at his beard.
“This one has shown a strength of leadership. The others look up to him.” Red reluctantly admitted.
“I will set Kalb to reorganizing this place. As I understand, you are the most advanced student here, in terms of your special abilities. I will expect you to work along with him and these four instructors to redesign the instruction to fit my needs.”
“Yes, Emperor.” I sketched a hasty bow.
“Now, he’s obedient.” The Emperor laughed.
“But there is another matter, that of Drum’s dog.” Kalb said soberly. “What will become of the beast with his master dead?”
“We will give him the chance to bond to Tiny. We hope they will bond and save both dog and boy.” I announced.
“Can that work?” The Emperor asked.
“It is exceedingly rare, but there are precedents.” Kalb answered, giving me a look that told me he knew about Sardar, and how could he not?
The Emperor nodded. “Let us pray it works, so we do not lose two boys and two dogs from this incident. That would be a tragic waste. Give them whatever it needs to make it happen. Make it a priority.”
“Then it is all decided?” Green asked, almost meekly.
The Emperor nodded. “Let it be done this evening. Prepare the gallery for an execution. Let the blood stain the sands of this place as a reminder of what has happened. He is one of ours, and he will be buried on the premises. He does not die with honor, but we must respect what it costs to make this place better.”
“Emperor!” The four instructors said almost simultaneously. They broke away, leaving to see to his will.
That left only Kalb, his dog, the Emperor, and myself. The Emperor regarded me warily. “I still remember you from that first day…”
“In the alley.” I finished.
He smiled at the memory. “You had bravely killed that desert cat. That beast was easily the size of you and your dog put together.”
I touched the scar across my forehead, remembering. “It was a good fight.”
“You were so defiant, even then. You have steel within you, Go.”
“And fire.” I replied softly.
The Emperor reached over and touched my forehead. It was hard not to flinch away from his touch, but I held very still. Dog tensed on the other side of the gate, but there was no harm in the touch. The Emperor’s eyes closed for a moment, and a smile crossed his face. I felt a tingle through my scalp as his calloused hand rested on my forehead.
“And fire.” The Emperor agreed.
Kalb swallowed audibly and looked away when the Emperor glanced over at him. Had he not told his master of my connection to Nokomi? Still, the Emperor did not seem displeased.
“I hope that this thing tonight does not haunt you too badly, Go. You cannot kill a man and not bear the weight of it. It is not something done lightly, but you have already said you would do it, so I will not relieve you of this duty. This is just one of the costs of leadership.”
“I will do my best to bear it.” I bowed my head.
“See that you do.”
The Emperor and Kalb left then, leaving me standing there. Teeth smiled at me, a dog’s smile. He came over and let me rub between his ears, and then he left, following the sandy footprints left by his master and his master’s master.
I watched them leave, and then went back to the gates, where the guards allowed me back into the north wing. Dog greeted me happily. He’d been anxious behind the gates, but his worries had been unfounded.
I felt relieved. Everything I’d asked for had been given to me. Except, I’d have to kill Drum in just a short while. I’d asked for it. I’d demanded it. Now I had to kill for the first time.
I wasn’t sure I was built for murder, even if it was justified. But I’d have to if I wanted to get back to Nokomi.
I snarled and leaped over Tiny, putting myself between Bear and my prone friend. His dog might be dead, but I would not let any more harm come to him. Dog snapped and barked at Bear, who held his head low, drooling and rheumy eyed.
A few of the auburn guards broke decorum first, letting swords fly in the presence of the Emperor as they closed on Bear and Drum. This set off a chain reaction of weapons coming out. The Emperor’s own sword remained sheathed on his hip, but all of his soldiers had their weapons out and had closed around him in just moments. Spears and pairs of swords bristled around the Emperor like a hedgehog.
Our instructors were yelling for calm and trying to get their guards to stand down, but the auburn guards were terrified now, with the Emperor’s guards all showing steel and some of them still standing unarmed. Most of them had reluctantly drawn their weapons as well, but they had not moved from their posts around us. Things were just a misstep or two from becoming a bloodbath.
“Stand down!” The Emperor bellowed. He had a voice that carried commands well. He was a natural leader. I could not smell even a single hint of fear on him, and his soldiers were nearly as good.
While his command might have worked for humans, it put all of the dogs on edge. Already, all of Panj was spoiling for a fight. We were out for blood, and Bull’s Pack Se was ready to follow us. What was left of Chahar stood in shock. Scar was looking around nervously, arms spread in a crouch, huddled beside his black attack dog. He and the rest of Pack Do were ready to fight anyone that came too close. Of all of us, Pack Yek was the only one to remain calm and keep their dogs from barking or scrambling around.
Panj had Drum and Bear half surrounded, backed against a row of auburn guard spears, spears that wavered after being told to stand down. Dogs snarled and barked at each other, dozens of bared teeth flashing and ready for violence.
My muscles bulked up, ready to explode into action, but Kalb barked. His bark was a resounding echo of a noise, all from a deformed mouth that was somewhere between human and canine. He and Teeth parted the Emperor’s guards, and he came to face us, Old Yellow-Eyes.
“Go!” He shouted. “Drum!”
I tilted my head at him. I was still crouched over Tiny’s body, with Little Dog’s still form beside my feet. “This cannot stand, Kalb!” I shouted back at him. “He killed one of ours!”
My neck bristled, and my fingernails ached as the elongated. I could feel my eyes flash yellow back at him. My muscles were tight like a bowstring, ready to release me as a deadly arrow.
Drum laughed. “Go, it is you we cannot stand! You have ruined this place!”
Kalb stepped over to Bear, who snarled and showed his teeth. When Kalb did not back down, but snarled back instead, Bear bowed his head in fear of the superior foe that Kalb presented. “Stand down, Drum. That is the order of your Emperor.”
“What is he to me, beyond a statue? What is he to any of us?” Drum cried. Tears streamed down his face. “He’s a face we are taught to respect… and why? He tore us from our homes. He put us in this cursed place!”
“I did put you here.” The Emperor admitted, parting his guards and coming to stand beside Kalb and Teeth. He stared unflinchingly at the broken boy. “I did all of that. I did it because I have need of you all.”
“What of our needs!” Drum protested. “Have you given a thought to those?”
The Emperor’s hand rested on his sword hilt, but he made no move to draw it. He looked at Kalb beside him, a dog in the general guise of a man, not fully human in appearance or soul. “My needs outweigh yours.”
“Why?” It was a half whine and half screech that left Drum’s angry mouth.
“Because I am the Emperor. I have responsibilities to all of the people in this land. You all will help me carry them out. You will help me make this a better land.”
It wasn’t a practiced speech, but it rang true. Perhaps that was why it rang true. The Emperor truly believed what he said. I could hear it in his voice. We’d all have been able to hear lies if he spoke them. Still, believing him and doing what he required were two very different things.
“But what if there is no place left in this land for us when you are done?”
“Then I have failed in my oath to uphold this land.” The Emperor answered.
“What he’s done cannot be forgiven.” I hissed, ignoring attempts from our instructors to silence me.
At this, our instructors cast apologies at the Emperor, bowing obsequiously, but he was unconcerned with their words. He was entirely focused on Kalb, Drum, and I.
Kalb regarded me coldly with his burning yellow eyes. “The Emperor will decide what can be forgiven and what cannot.”
I shook my head. “There is no place left in here for him. He will never be accepted again.”
“He’s right.” Drum admitted. “I have no place at all. I have no life left. All I have is my anger. My hate. All I could do is share it with them.” Drum tilted his head back at an odd angle, smiling at the sky.
The Emperor watched this exchange with a growing frown. “This is an awful display, Kalb.” His eyes turned to the painful sight of Little Dog’s still body in the sand beside his master. “What a waste of potential. Are these beasts truly here to learn serve me? Can they?”
Bull approached then, holding up his hands to show he was unarmed. “We are not all like him, Emperor. We have order among us. We are pack. I do not want to think that any of us is too far gone, but Drum is sick. He is a mad beast that should be put down. You do not keep sick animals with the healthy ones, or they can all go bad...”
The Emperor’s mouth twisted. He chewed his inner lip as he considered these words. “Kalb, what would you have us do?”
Kalb cleared his throat before he spoke. “This is a delicate matter. We are at a turning point in the training. Drum knows too much to let go, but he is no longer welcome here.”
“With all respect, this is a pack matter now.” I held my chin up and dared the Emperor to disagree. It might not have been a wise choice, but I made it anyway. I owed Tiny that much.
“A pack matter?” The Emperor snorted. “What does that mean?”
“If your child misbehaves, do you allow another to punish her, or do you punish her yourself? That is what I mean. He is one of us, and this is a pack matter. We must be allowed to decide for ourselves what punishment best suits him. This is not for our instructors, not this school, and, respectfully, not for you, Emperor, to decide.”
Grey looked as if I’d just struck him in the gut. He went white with fear and bowed as he shouted out an apology on my behalf, “Your excellency, I must apologize for this one! He is one of our newest recruits, and he has been slow to grasp his lessons on etiquette, and he does not yet grasp the chain of command or the more central fundamentals of soldiering!”
The Emperor’s eyebrow rose. “Yet I understand he is one of your more capable fighters.”
“He is, excellency.” Grey admitted, keeping his head low.
The Emperor turned to square his shoulders at me. “What would this pack justice entail?”
“It would fall upon our pack, as the injured pack, as well as Pack Chahar, his former pack, to decide.” I suggested. I’d not really thought that far ahead.
“And any decision would have to be agreed on by all of the packs as a collective, Emperor...” Bull suggested.
“Curious.” He turned to Kalb. “We shall see this done, this strange version of military justice. I will be staying in the quarters here until this justice is seen to. Keep me apprised of the situation. I would be present when any sentence and justice is handed out.”
The Emperor waved off his guards, who sheathed their weapons smoothly and fell back to follow him across the sand toward the south gates. He paused briefly, looking across the statues of himself and his family. I couldn’t be certain, but it almost seemed as if his gaze rested longest on the statue of Nokomi, his favorited daughter.
Abruptly, the Emperor turned back and announced, “I leave this matter in your hands, Go. Choose wisely in this grave situation. An ill choice here could mean the end of this place, but a wise choice could see you all at the center of my plans.”
With that, he vanished, leaving Kalb to glare at us for a moment longer before he, too, left, likely to confer with the Emperor. I had no doubt that he would be back. His dog, Teeth, barked at the whole lot of us twice, looking disapprovingly at what had befallen Tiny and Little Dog. He left as well, heavy paws taking him across the sand to the south gates.
Our instructors, Blue, Red, Grey, and Green fell upon us then, forcing us all back into our north wing with their curses, orders, and general disapproval. They made as if to have the auburn guards move Tiny, but Dog and I snarled and snapped at them. Panj carried their own.
Killer and the others took Tiny in their arms, while I cradled the wreckage of Little Dog in my two hands. He looked ever so small, a sad, broken caricature of what he had been in life. My hands and heart ached as I carried him, knowing I would never see those tiny teeth flash again, stabbing at my fingers when we played.
Panj took Tiny and Little Dog back to our room while a detachment of the auburn guards escorted Bear and Drum. Those two had given up any shred of resistance and followed lamely, doing as they were told for once. They would await their sentence in a cell, likely the one he’d been in just weeks before.
The gates to the north wing slammed shut behind us, but a detachment of guards waited in the halls, and we could hear our instructors arguing behind the gates.
There were decisions to be made.
Mongrel’s mutt recovered, but limped still. I suspected there was a break, but it would heal. Mongrel knew his animal best. He spent the better part of a week resting, skipping classes to stay in an almost constant state of meditation. His whole reduced pack sat with him in the evenings. Even Pack Yek sat with them one night, making a second circle that surrounded the four members of Chahar as they watched over the wounded dog. I’m not certain that it helped, but they kept Mongrel fed and focused on getting better.
I knew what it was to share pain with my animal. Dog and I had both been hurt before, and the healing always went fastest when we both experienced it. It is nearly impossible to fully explain the sensation with one who has not bonded with another in the same way. Perhaps a parent knows what it is to watch a child suffer, to want to take on some of their pain. But what if they really could? That is what it is for us of the Old Blood.
For days and weeks, Drum was a festering sore on our collective hides. He remained bitterly alone, although he attended classes with Chahar. He was clearly apart from them, but he had nowhere else to go, and the instructors seemed dumbfounded by the changes, however warranted.
They had no procedures for a lone student, one shunned by his pack and shut out from socializing with the other packs. It wasn’t what was supposed to happen, so they went on as if nothing was wrong, and that did nothing to deal with the problem. Drum grew more bitter, more withdrawn. Bear snapped at everyone.
They began feeding him alone, but it had been quite the conversation the first night when meal time came. They’d sent for Green, who had demanded to know what was going on. No one would say anything about the ostracized former leader of Chahar. Green even cast his accusing eyes at me, but he relented when my whole pack defended me.
In the end, they’d started sending a sixth basket of food, a small one, with Drum and Bear’s food in it. He’d become Pack Sefr without intending to do so. The nickname stuck, even when they went to classes. The other boys would always joke about having to battle against Pack Sefr, but as vicious as Drum was becoming, no one really wanted to do it.
It was into this mess that the Emperor walked. He came for an unannounced inspection. We didn’t know what was going on. We just knew that we were all woken up early one morning by Grey and we were told to put on our dress uniforms and gather in the gallery.
“What’s going on?” Everyone asked at once.
“The Emperor is here!” Grey hissed. “He’s trying to see how his investment has paid off. You all need to be dressed and presentable in fifteen minutes. Make it happen.” He clapped, setting off a commotion of dressing, washing, and shoe-tying.
We all hurried to the bathroom to wash up, comb our hair with our fingers, pee, and get ourselves presentable, all of us except Drum. The energy was palpable. It was like preparing for war, a war against being found lacking.
Back in our rooms, we struggled with tying shoes. Killer was the best at it. His thick fingers were surprisingly nimble. He tied my shoes and everyone else’s in the room. We looked each other over, straightening collars and hair for each. I imagine that all of our preening was pathetic compared to what real soldiers would have done, but we did our best.
Before we were really ready, we were led out into the gallery. We fell into ranks by pack, arranging ourselves in order of experience, with Yek at one end and our pack at the other.
The sun was morning sun was just creeping up over the horizon, threatening to spill its light over the second floor walls of the gallery. The air was humid, but chilly, and the ground was damp with the morning dew. We fidgeted under the watchful gaze of our three instructors: Red, Blue, and Grey. They seemed as nervous as we were. Green was nowhere to be seen.
Grey gave us a few reminders as we awaited our inspections. “Remember, you are servants of the Emperor. Display yourselves as worthy of his attention, but remember your manners! You will not speak to him unless spoken to. You will answer any and every question quickly and fully.”
Red’s pep talk followed Grey’s. “Display yourselves as soldiers. Stand tall. Stand proud!” He paced up and down our row, fixing collars, straightening shirts, and demanding that no fewer than three pairs of shoes were retied properly. He made several sit their dogs at attention. According to him, dogs were not to laze about in the presence of the Emperor.
I smiled at this. Did they not understand animals? Dogs lazed about most of the day. It was in their natures. They stood at attention for a reason and quickly became relaxed when there was a lack of a reason.
Blue had no words. He merely eyed the whole lot of us critically. He was as quiet and serious as the auburn guards, all of which seemed to be present and on the grounds. The auburn guards nervously shifted their stances, slight twitches that would have been unnoticeable to some without such sharp senses as we had.
We stood in that humid morning air, smelling breakfast being cooked somewhere in the south wing. More than one stomach growled. Tiny laughed, but quickly quieted once more when Blue’s gaze shifted his way.
Eventually, the south gates opened, permitting a troop of no less than a score of armored soldiers. They fanned out, ten going each way. These were professional killers, and they were attired as such. They moved with predatory grace that exhibited their obvious skill.
They wore spiked helmets, with chainmail draping down over their shoulders and neck. Nose guards from the helmets and red scarf across the face obscured all but the soldiers’ eyes. Their armor was layers of leather and scales, with the scales set more heavily into the chest and shoulders of their armor. Layered leather skirting protected their hips and thighs. Some of them wore vambraces over their wrists. Those ones carried bronze-tipped throwing spears, with several extra spears holstered across their backs. The others wore heavy gloves and carried pairs of curved swords, one at each hip.
Clearly, this show of force was to dissuade any of us, like me, from challenging the Emperor as I had defied Green just a few weeks back. The Emperor entered with Green on his left and Kalb on his right. Another ten soldiers followed him in. From watching them, I knew that in moments, the three groups could fold in and create a deadly triangle around their Emperor, one that our concerted effort would likely not succeed in breaking.
The Emperor was much as I recalled – exactly like his statue, if smaller. The statue was, of course, far beyond human scale, probably double his actual size. He wore his conical head wrap and his layered coats and wide pants. Belted over his gilded coat was that same curved blade I remembered from the day I met Nokomi.
I craned my neck, hoping beyond all reason that the Emperor had brought his daughter with him on this inspection. But why would he? Why would he bring her to this secret school full of dogs and boys? There was no hint of her scent on the wind.
The Emperor strode out to five long paces in front of us and regarded us all with his shrewd gaze. “This is what I am spending so much money on? This rabble of dogs and underfed boys?”
Kalb laughed. “Was I not also an underfed boy when we met? Have I not proven my worth, Majesty?”
The Emperor’s face crinkled into a smile. “Very true, old friend.” He clapped Kalb across the shoulder. Then he reached down and rubbed Teeth between the ears. Teeth’s tongue lolled out happily.
Tiny and I exchanged gazes. Blue’s hawk eyes swiveled our way again. We snapped back to attention.
The Emperor paced the length of our class, from Yek to Panj, and back again. He stopped here and there, inquiring about breeds of specific dogs. On his way past our pack, he locked eyes with me for a moment and looked as if he might say something.
Instead, the Emperor turned to Tiny and smiled. “That is quite a small animal beside you. What is his name?”
L.D. growled, baring all of his small teeth at the Emperor, shocking Grey, but eliciting a laugh from the Emperor. Tiny sketched a clumsy bow and did his best to answer. “L.D., Emperor. His name is L.D., for Little Dog.”
“Fierce, isn’t he?” The Emperor favored both dog and boy with a warm smile.
“I think he likes you, Sir.” Tiny suggested. L.D. seemed to comply with a bug-eyed snarl.
The Emperor laughed aloud, a deep belly laugh. “I’d hate to see what he’d do if he didn’t like me.”
“Would you now, your highness?” A voice drawled.
We all turned to the source of the voice, finding Drum strolling out from the north gates with his beast of a dog, Bear. Guards all through the gallery put hands to weapons, but none drew. They would not, not without orders.
“Who is this one?” The Emperor inquired, curious about the one who walked out when he pleased and spoke when not spoken to.
“That one is Drum.” Green said, matter-of-factly. His voice was tight, and his expression most severe. He nearly waved the auburn guards to surround them, but the Emperor held up his hand to stop any such thing from happening.
“Ahh, so this is the one who despoiled my daughter’s statue.” The Emperor looked Drum over appraisingly, his eyes lingering longest on the beast beside him.
Drum looked surprised that the Emperor had heard of his exploits, but he didn’t seem to care. He’d shown up in his street rags, refusing to put on the uniforms as we all had. He went barefoot, true to himself. His dog, every massive pound of him, bristled at the guards.
I had a sick feeling in my stomach as Drum sidled up just beyond us to join the line, putting himself in the sixth position, as a group of one, rather than trying to retake his place with Chahar. He truly was showing himself to be Pack Sefr. Bear did not sit. He stood, swiveling his large head back and forth, growling at everyone.
“So you’ve heard about that?” Drum laughed. “We’re all dogs here.”
The Emperor favored him with a hard stare, but Drum’s fevered eyes were wild and unfocused. He didn’t wilt under that gaze as he might have once. “We piss on things, my Emperor. It’s what we do.”
“It’s what you do.” Tiny muttered just loud enough for everyone to hear. L.D. yipped in agreement.
“Yes. Making messes. It’s what we do.” Drum smiled sickly, turning to Tiny. He signaled to Bear, and the massive dog surged over, snapping L.D. up in his jaws. It was all of two steps for him. No one could have stopped him.
With a quick wet crunch, it was all over. L.D. was dead. Bear spat Tiny’s fierce little dog onto the sand. Broken. Lifeless.
Tiny dropped to his knees as if shot in the heart, going white in the face. A scream died in his throat, ending as a gurgle. His eyes rolled back in his head and he fainted right out, hitting the sand as if he’d been struck dead.
I felt a howl in the back of my throat, and everything started to happen all at once…
I woke in a cage in a darkened room, feeling as if I’d been thoroughly beaten. I probably had been, but my memory was hazy. I couldn’t see much beyond the dark, damp walls. What part of the complex was I in? I didn’t recognize it. Even the smells were strange.
I smacked my lips, disliking the cottony feeling of my tongue. My head ached along with the rest of my face. The areas around my jaw and nose were especially tender, as if the bones had been broken and had recently reknitted. My fingertips were bleeding. So was the slash on my side, where the halberd had cut along my ribs. It was crusty and stuck to my shirt, what was left of my shirt anyway. I also had a crossbow wound in my thigh, a dog bite on my ankle, and an impressive collection of bruises and scrapes.
I’d had worse.
I smiled, remembering the alley fight with the desert cat from my childhood. “That was something, eh?” I spoke to Dog, except Dog wasn’t there.
Panic set in. I lurched up from my prone position, forgetting that I was in a cage. My head slammed into the top of the cage. I howled with rage and shook the bars of the cage in my fists. This just made me madder. I screamed until I panted, and I pulled at the bars until sweat and saliva both dripped from me.
“DOG!” I screamed over and over and over again, screaming myself hoarse.
Distantly, I thought I heard a bark, a yelp of recognition. There was a tickle at the back of my mind, a presence. I knew it was him, but he was not here, and he was as hurt as I was. We needed to be together. Why was he not with me? In my life, I could not ever recall having been separated, and it was a horrible sensation.
I heard a clank from the door. I ceased my screaming and struggling, catching my breath as I watched to see who came in. I smelled him before I saw him, although his outline was also familiar.
“Kalb.” I hissed.
“Go.” Kalb replied, closing the door behind him. I heard it bolt and lock from the other side. He stepped over to my cage and settled him onto the floor in the manner of someone older and more tired than he looked.
In the dim light, I focused on his yellow eyes, which seemed to glow from within. They were not so yellow as they were when he grew angry, when he became more than just a man, as I had. In his eyes, I could see a faint reflection of my face, and my eyes were no longer yellow.
“You’ve made quite a mess of things.” He sighed.
I laughed. “I have? Did I ask to be put here? Did I ask to be treated like this? You did all of that.”
Kalb smiled beneath his beard, teeth flashing. “Boy, you have no idea the opportunities you’re being given. On the street, what were you? You were a thief or a scavenger at best. Here, you can be something!”
I shook my head. “I was something. I was a pack.”
“And what did that amount to? You were untrained, a waste of the gift you were born with. You could be so much more than any of these boys…”
Kalb shook his head. “You don’t understand. What you did yesterday, it’s something that I can do, but that took me years to learn. I cannot understand how you’ve done it so soon. Your abilities… they will be amazing.”
“I don’t want to be a beast.”
“But you’ve always been one. You just didn’t realize it. Like you, I was a feral child once, too. Only I didn’t save the Emperor’s daughter. I saved him.”
“You saved the Emperor?” This was news to me. It’s something I hadn’t imagined. Was that why he served the Emperor? Were they pack?
Kalb nodded. “I met him in the market after his people had conquered our lands, although conquer is a rough and inaccurate word for what really happened. We were a scattered, fractured people. We squabbled and fought over scraps of territory. His people came in and united us under their banner. We are more under them than we were when free. Our people have prospered more in the last twenty years than they had in the two hundred before they came among us.”
“And for that I owe your Emperor my service?”
“Oh, I think we know more than that, you and I.” Kalb laughed. “A dog can’t have two masters.”
I swallowed hard. Did he know? “Was that why the tests…” I trailed off.
“The perfume. The girl. The statues. I needed to know for certain.”
His eyes took on a look of concern, a surprising emotion that I could smell upon him. “Politics are strange, convoluted games, Go. I’ve said that I serve the Emperor. Like you, I am bonded to him. When he was a boy, someone tried to have him killed. I saved him, and he bonded me that day. We shared blood. I feel its fire in my veins to this day, even years later, the same as you feel hers.”
“Yes. Nokomi, his daughter. All of these boys are going to be sworn and loyal to the Emperor, but what happens when the Emperor changes or dies? Who will their loyalty transfer to?”
“Why would the Emperor die?”
“Remember how there was an attempt on his life as a boy? Those have never stopped. Every year on that day, another attempt is made. He has been fortunate. He has always avoided death, sometimes at a personal cost. Other times I have borne the pain intended for him, but we have always come out alive.”
“But that can’t last forever.” I surmised.
“No, it can’t. One day, our luck will run out.”
“Then find who is doing it and stop them!” If the Emperor died, what would that mean for Nokomi?
A flash of teeth again, a vicious smile from Kalb. “We have not been lax in our attempts to find the source of the assassins. Still years later, we’ve not been able to root out the true source. Explanations have been offered, but I don’t like them. There is one who hides his true intentions.”
I narrowed my eyes at him. Something wasn’t being said here. “You know who it is.”
“I believe I know the real culprit, but the Emperor would never believe me.”
I sniffed. “Family.”
Kalb regarded me with surprise once again. “It is not Nokomi or her sister. I trust his wife as well. I won’t mention names now, because I don’t know how far to trust you. There are things you should not know until you are ready.”
“What is it you want from me then?”
“I want you to swear to serve the Emperor.”
“You said I cannot serve two masters…”
He nodded. “Exactly, but you might serve your true master and the Emperor while the interests of the two coincide. There will come a day when the Emperor will die, hopefully of old age. At that time, the army we’re making here will transfer their loyalty to someone else, the new Emperor.”
“Who will that be?”
“The Empress may take control for a while, but there will have to be an Emperor. It will be a new consort for the Empress, the husband of one of his daughters, or another relative.” He hesitated, as if to say more, but then he remembered who he was speaking to. “Nokomi is the youngest daughter, so she is the least threatening of the three ladies, but you’ve already bonded with her. I want you to protect her, no matter what. I want you to be her personal guardian, all the while pretending to serve only the Emperor.”
“You want me to lie to the Emperor about my loyalty to him? Don’t you serve him?”
“Don’t be daft.” He said sharply. “I am serving him by setting you as a true guardian to his most beloved child. He loves the Empress Anahita as his mate, and he loves his firstborn daughter, Neema, but Nokomi is his heart. That girl can do no wrong in his eyes, despite her rebellious nature. I am protecting her to serve him.”
“She is pack.” I said softly.
“I know, Go.” He sighed. “I know.” If anyone understood this, it was him.
“But what do I do about this place?”
“You learn. I need you to endure this punishment. You attacked a guard, a servant of the Emperor. You need to be punished for that.”
“But being separated from Dog!”
Kalb held up his hands. “It was necessary. Even unconscious, you couldn’t return to human until you were separated. You don’t have the control you need. You will learn, and someday you will be able to become the beast without losing the brain of a man.”
“I need Dog.” I insisted.
“I know. He will be returned to you. You two can heal together, until your punishment is up.”
“Drum?” Had my rival been punished as well?
“He has been punished for disrespecting the Emperor’s daughter. He was whipped and forced to clean the statue.”
That was acceptable. It didn’t mean it would change him though. I knew his type. He’d look for a way to get his revenge. He was an ugly person. There was still the matter of my pack. “Panj?”
“Your pack, if they’ll still have you as leader, has grown. Face joined it. He wasn’t welcome in Chahar anymore.”
That was welcome news, at least. I liked Face. He was better suited to our pack than Chahar. Still, would my own pack want me back? “What if they don’t want me anymore?”
“Then you live apart. There are consequences to actions, Go. This might be one of them for you. No matter where you end up, you must still learn your lessons, beside them, if not with them. What you have is important. They will fear you, but they will want what you have. They will want to learn to do as you have. That is one of the reasons why we created the Kennel. You have more of the Old Blood in you than any of them, and it shows. Respect will come as you learn your lessons and grow more powerful. You don’t need their love.”
“Old Blood, that is this animal connection we have… Is that so different from what Nokomi’s people have? If they come from another land, then they don’t have the Old Blood in them?”
‘The Old Blood is strange to them. Even in our land, it is a widely forgotten remnant of our people’s first days in the world, when animals offered their minds to us, when we worked together to protect each other and live. That’s why they’re only just now trying to make use of it.” Kalb explained.
He traced a scar on his forearm. Was that where he’d been bonded? The scar on my forehead flared at the memory of Nokomi’s blood mixing with mine. “And Nokomi’s people?”
“What they have is the New Blood. It’s the power of blood and fire. You’ve felt it in your veins. They come from a harsh place, a place where fire was life. It became part of their family in particular. It is why they rule. Their blood is like fire. It is fire, if they want it to be. It can also bond people to them, as with you and I.”
I tried to understand all of this. It was a lot to take in. I was to serve the Emperor, while secretly serving his daughter instead. I would be her guardian and protector, but only if I made it through this place and learned to control my abilities.
“Go?” Kalb asked, seeing as how I’d gone silent.
“Do we have an understanding? Will you serve Nokomi?”
“You didn’t have to ask. It’s all I’ve ever wanted since I met her. I’ve only ever wanted to be beside her. She is pack.”
“There will come a time, I fear, when serving her might mean putting you at odds with the rest of the kingdom. Will you still serve her then?”
“Dog and I will serve her to our deaths. She is pack.” I repeated.
Kalb reached a hand toward the cage, grasping my hand where it was clasped around the bars. “Boy, I want to trust you. Do not betray my faith in you.”
Kalb laughed. “Your persistence is admirable. I will bring him here immediately.”
“And food. Water. Clothes.”
“Fine. It will be so. Now heal and learn your lessons well.”
“And you, will you be back?”
Kalb stared at me for a long moment, thinking. “I think I will, if I can, when there are lessons that these men can’t teach you. Know that I cannot come often. There are those that watch my comings and goings, and this place is still a secret.”
He hammered on the door with a fist. It was opened hurriedly. Even the guards here feared his wrath and moved quickly to do his will. What must that be like, I wondered?
After he left, I heard him in the halls, barking orders at the soldiers guarding my door. He called for Dog to be brought to me, along with food, water, and more. I settled back down into the straw of the cage and waited.
My excitement trickled through the bond I shared with Dog. He knew. We’d be together again soon. I knew his tail was wagging. I could feel it.
I woke to a pounding on the bars of my cage. I lay in a pile of straw, huddled against Dog. My thoughts felt thick, heavy. Something was not right. The last things I recalled were eating and the caravan resuming its move toward the destination…
“Wake up.” Someone ordered, rattling a stick on the bars. I doubted this was the first time the rattling had occurred.
We must have fallen asleep, but my mouth had an odd taste and my limbs felt leaden. Dog rolled over and stiffly rose. He favored the one leg, but seemed otherwise fine, despite the fog that still clouded our thoughts.
The cage was opened, and several large men with weapons prodded and herded us down a hall into a large open area, under a dazzling sunlight. We entered a sandy square with a statue twice the height of a man in the middle of it. The sun was overhead, and my eyes took a moment to adjust enough to take it all in.
More of a rectangle than a square, the area was open to the air, with the sun beating down on us from a nearly cloudless sky. I blinked several times and shielded my eyes until they adjusted. From the sky, I could tell it was at least midmorning. I turned to slowly to get a better look at the building.
Pillars placed every few paces completely surrounded the rectangle, reminding us that we were still in a cage. Between the pillars were painted mud walls, likely plastered over heavy bricks. The pillars and walls were only broken in four places, each place at the middle of one of the four walls. To the north and south there were large double gates made of wood and banded with iron. They were wide enough for a wagon to drive through. To the east and west, there were small doors, large enough for a person to pass through only. Currently, all four doors and gates were closed. They, like the walls, had a sturdiness about them.
A balconied second floor was above us, open except for a railing and the pillars, which partially obscured sightlines, seeing how they extended all the way to the tiled roof that they held up. Faces lined the north side, those of both dogs and boys spaced around the pillars along the balcony railing. To the east and west, the balconies were mostly empty, except for a few guards in auburn robes and conical helmets stationed at intervals with their halberds or crossbows. To the south, we saw a large, well-outfitted box with luxurious chairs and benches. Official-looking men and well-dressed soldiers filled about half of that box, looking down on us from their gallery.
We stood before the statue that wore a face that I knew belonged to Nokomi’s father. Kalb had mentioned serving an Emperor, and I’d known that Kalb had been with Nokomi’s father on the day I’d first met her, but somehow I’d never really put it together that this meant she was the Emperor’s daughter. Now it all hit me, and I felt exceedingly stupid for not having realized just how different the two of us were. I knew little of social pecking orders, other than that I’d been at the bottom of the social ladder once Dog and I stepped out of the alleys, but I’d never realized just how far apart our stations actually were.
I frowned at the statue and then let my eyes drift over my shoulder to the line of canine faces and the boys that watched us from the balcony railing above the north gate. There were around twenty dogs and the exact same number of boys. They came in a variety of sizes and ages, just like the beasts they were with. Most of them had hard looks about their eyes, while a few looked cruelly amused by our plight, and fewer still wore sympathetic looks. They all knew what was about to befall us, likely having gone through this same thing themselves.
The south gates opened. The boys beside me flinched. There were four of us and four dogs. Dog and I looked to be the oldest of the bunch. There were also four guards with us in the sandy square, one for each pair of a dog and a boy. Beside Dog and I, there was a scrawny boy with a long-limbed dog, each looking as if they might spring off and outrun the fleetest desert cat at any moment. Next to him was a stocky young man, probably just a year younger than myself. He was paired with a squat, mean-looking dog with a triangular head and powerful jaws. The last and youngest of the four of us actually looked the least worried. He stood beside a tiny dog that had already bared its teeth. Like his dog, the boy had his teeth bared in a snarl.
The little dog charged blindly at the south gates as they opened, not even waiting for anyone or anything to emerge. The young boy dutifully tried to follow his dog in the attack, but he was a bit slower. The guard assigned to him lunged and caught him with a padded truncheon, striking him across the shoulders and knocking him to the ground. Sensing his partner’s distress, the boy’s dog wheeled in the sand and charged at the guard instead of the gates. The guard flinched back and tried to protect his shins from the nipping little beast.
Dog and I stared in amazement as the tenacious creature went on the offensive. The boy’s dog was honestly smaller than many rats I’d eaten in the alleys, but it was strangely undaunted by the size and strength of its opponent. The little dog, with ears nearly as large as its body, darted in and seized the guard’s ankle in his mouth, biting hard. Its needle teeth scored a taste of blood through the man’s robes, and the guard howled, shaking his foot and shouting.
That was all the opening the boy needed. He grabbed that raised leg and shoved it upward with all of his might, upending the guard. Moments later, the boy was on top of the guard’s chest, scratching and snarling at his face. The north gallery behind us erupted in a cheers and excited barks as the boy appeared to get the better of his guard. Clearly it was something that the boys and their dogs had always wanted to try.
The moment of victory was short-lived. A barking shout, something not quite human and not quite canine but something in-between, echoed throughout the gallery. The little dog and his boy both froze and turned, as did we all. Even the crowd of boys and dogs behind us quieted in an instant.
Kalb and his mastiff strolled powerfully out onto the sand, and the gate closed behind him and three others, shutting with a thud and a clank that seemed weak after his bark. He came to a stop a few paces in front of us.
“Stand.” Kalb growled.
The little boy and his much smaller dog got off of the guard, who dusted himself off and tried to stand tall behind his charge, but he withered under Kalb’s yellow-eyed glare. Somehow, I doubted we’d see this guard much more, and if we did, he’d certainly try to get even with the boy for the shame he’d just inflicted upon him.
Kalb was not the type to pace back and forth needlessly. He stood front and center from our group and addressed us all, swiveling his sharp eyes as he did so. “You four are at the Kennel. This is your new home. It is where you will learn to serve your purpose.” Teeth, his giant mastiff, stood at attention at his side, almost begging one of us to step out of line.
He held his hands out to indicate the three nearly-identical men that had come out onto the sand with him. “These will be your trainers and teachers.”
All three were dressed in the same uniform, exactly the same except for their colors: one dressed in red, another in blue, and the last in grey. Each had shrewd, dark eyes and sharp, bony features. It was entirely possible that they were brothers. I doubted I’d be able to tell them apart if they all wore the same color of outfit. They wore their hair close-cropped and were clean-shaven, which was something of an oddity. Most men in the city wore beards or at least mustaches. They were symbols of their adulthood and status. The richer and more powerful, the grander the beard they usually wore.
“Your instructors will show you all you need to know, and you will excel at your lessons. You will take everything they say to heart.” Kalb elaborated.
“Red will teach you all you know of fighting.” Red bowed stiffly from the waist as he was introduced. “You will learn to take the best of your raw animal nature and focus it in effective fighting techniques that make the best of your special abilities. Using skills from both beast and man, you will become more efficient killers.”
“Blue will instruct you in tactics and war.” Blue bowed similarly. “You may be called upon to fight in the shadows, upon the battlefield, or as a lone warrior. You will be given instruction on how to overcome your enemies under any circumstances. Even beasts use hunting tactics. They surround, confuse, and stalk their prey. You will learn to work together to overwhelm and surprise your enemies, all in the service of our Emperor, and you will learn how to effectively eliminate enemies by yourself, as needed.”
“Grey will teach you etiquette, manners, and dance.” Grey bowed with a courtly flourish, a smile twisting at the corners of his lips. I looked back and forth at my classmates, surprised by this one.
Kalb’s eyes focused on Dog and me as he explained. “You know how to be beasts. Can you also be men? The Emperor may see fit to hide you in plain sight. If you cannot eat like men, talk like men, and entertain like men, then how can you be his secret weapons? You must learn to be men, but better than men, for your dual nature makes you a savage creature in human guise.”
“Your loyalties are threefold: Respect your Emperor. Respect your teachers. Respect your pack. Without loyalties, we cannot find purpose. Without purpose, we are animals.”
Red, Blue, and Grey bowed as one, and turned sharply on their heels to depart, and our guards left then, as well. The young boy with the small dog shared a glare with his guard as he hurried from the gallery, leaving only Kalb in front of us.
It occurred to me that the four of us might have a chance to overwhelm Kalb and Teeth, killing them if we worked in concert. Yet, that only brought to mind Kalb’s words, what he’d said about learning to work together with the others. We were untrained beasts, and we would fail against a superior foe.
As if reading my thoughts or our body language, Kalb opened his robes at the throat, baring his collared neck. He held his arms wide at his side, inviting attack. “Here is your chance, the last any of you will ever have. After this, you are mine.”
I took a half step forward. Dead silence filled the place. I felt the weight of eyes from behind and the front. Everyone on the second floor was watching, dogs, boys, officers, and soldiers alike. I heard the creak of a bolt being readied in a crossbow in the eastern gallery. Kalb waved a hand in that direction, not even bothering to look. Somehow, we both knew the bolt in the weapon was eased away from my direction.
Despite it being a guaranteed death, I hesitated, foot raised to take another step forward. Dog, wounded though he was, stood poised and ready to follow me into battle. Kalb watched me, only the slightest hint of surprise in his eyes, and something else, was it approval?
As much as I did not care for the situation I’d been placed in, there was one thing I had heard loudest of all: We were to be put in service to the Emperor. If that was true, the there was a chance that I could return to Nokomi’s side if I learned well, because the service of the Emperor could bring me back to the city, and that meant working near Nokomi.
I made up my mind then and there. I would learn my lessons, and I would learn them better than any of these others. I’d learn all they could teach me, and I’d get back to her. I put my foot down and stepped back. Dog feel in line and relaxed beside me.
“Good.” Kalb announced with a smile, covering his neck once more. “Now let us go get you all settled in to your new homes.
The ride away from town would have been uneventful and long, if we were not mourning the loss of Nokomi from our pack once more. At least we had the memory of her face in our minds. She was so alike what she had been, and yet more. The years between meetings had seen her grow from that wild child in white we’d met in the alleys into the beautiful creature we’d seen in the Bazaar.
Dog and I could not speak of our own beauty. We were wild creatures, the two of us, but we had both grown in strength and stature. Despite my young age, I had no doubt that I might soon be the size of Adish, although of a wirier build. Like the desert dog that Dog was, I would be all sinewy strength, while Adish was heavily-muscled from his time working the forge. If you’ve ever fought with a dog, pound for pound they are much meaner and leaner than any human. I knew I’d take after Dog, rather than my parents, whoever they had been. Dog and I were pack, of a type, if not species.
When the city began to fade from view, the sprawling stretch of buildings fading from where it filled our whole horizon to being a collection of dots on the horizon, we examined our surroundings. The city I’d grown up in was surrounded by sandy hills and scrublands covered with sparse, dry brush. Many of the trees were little taller than myself, and those that were looked twisted and dry, only fully blooming and looking alive when the rains came. Dusky-skinned and scaly critters skittered in the underbrush, hiding from our caravan as it passed. Night time would have shown more activity, as much of the life out here hid from the sun’s harsh light.
We were not alone. There were other jail wagons in our train, but I could not make out more than the one in front of us, and that one, too, carried a boy and his dog. Was he another like me? I had to think it was so. He would not meet my eyes, but we could smell his fear wafting back to us on the wind, overwhelming the smell of horses and men. I hoped if any others took in our scents, they smelled anger and defiance, rather than fear.
Our jail wagon was drawn by a pair of stout horses, creatures bred for stamina and strength, not speed. The plodded along the sand and clay trail, driven by a pair of guardsmen who sat at the front of the wagon. We traveled for set intervals of time, at which time the line would halt. Everyone, the horses and prisoners included, would take water and food. Dog and I were given battered tin dishes of water to share along with sticks of dried meat and crusts of a thin bread.
Had I bothered to think about it, I’d have decided that the quality of food was nowhere what I’d been eating at Adish’s forge. Sherine was a far better cook. Still, we were gloomy from our forced parting with Nokomi and cared little for the taste of food. We had spent enough time on the streets to realize that we could no longer count on our next meal. We’d eat whatever was offered, regardless of its flavor or who offered it. We had to keep our strength up if we wanted to resist and escape. We had to get back to her.
She kept me going. Even Dog could not comfort me as we huddled together in a sweaty, sorrowful mass. Something in me felt torn asunder.
As we sat chewing our tough, dried meat, Kalb came riding up alongside us. He rode a horse, one that didn’t seem to care for his presence, if the way it chomped and pulled at the bit were any indication. Dog and I saw far too much of the whites of the beast’s eyes. It was clearly not comfortable with having the dog-man on its back and the mastiff trotting beside it.
“We will be there soon.” Kalb announced, as if we cared. We were certainly in no hurry to get to anywhere he wished to take us.
The silence was unpleasant. Had I grown so accustomed to speaking? There would be hours to sit in silence, so I took the bait. “Where are we going?”
“Your new home.” He grinned, his sharp teeth flashing through his beard. He certainly looked as much animal as man, more sometimes than others. Did I look like that ever?
“We call it the Kennel.” I stared at him blankly. He continued. “It is a place where we gather people like you and I, those of the Old Blood.”
“Others like us?” Clearly, he meant people bonded to animals, like Dog and I or himself and his mastiff. Other than him, I’d never met another like me, not in all the time I’d wandered the city.
“We are a special breed, you and I, closer to the animals than our fellow men. Our type is ancient, fewer now than we used to be, when our people first came to the desert and learned to crouch beside the firelight with our animals to protect us from the night, before the time of cities and industry. Now… we’re seen as an oddity, beast men, looked down upon as lesser beings, relics of the past”
I had nothing to say to this, though my mind could picture men of the distant past, wandering the open lands with animals at our sides. His words rang true, but even then, I doubted that every man could have been as Dog and I were. No, I suspected even then we might have been something special, if not as rare as we were today.
I felt a pang, suddenly very glad to have Dog, hating the idea of not having something bonded so closely to me. But was that what it was like for Adish and Sherine? They had a bond, not unlike what Dog and I shared, but also very different. Was that why people all sought connection?
“What’s his name?” I asked, looking at Kalb’s companion.
The mastiff glanced up at us, panting and making an expression that looked like a human’s smile. Kalb glanced between his dog and the two of us in the cage. “His name is Teeth.”
“You see, we are very alike, you and I, more so than the others I’ve found. I am what you could become if you tried. Right now, you only live to fill your bellies and make it to another day. It is a simple, selfish existence. The Kennel will give you a purpose, someone to serve. We will make you more than you are.”
“Or you will not.” I smiled.
Kalb leaned toward the bars of our cage, putting his amber eyes close to mine. “Every dog serves a master. I serve the Emperor, a just and powerful man. Who will yours master be? Who will you place above yourself and serve?”
I met his gaze unblinkingly. “Nokomi.” I answered, not knowing why at first, but I felt the truth of it as I said it. Dog yipped in agreement.
Kalb backed away and sniffed at us. Then his eyes scanned our faces, locking onto the scars across my forehead. “Curious.” He announced, sharing a significant glance with Teeth. He turned back to us and smiled, as if he knew a secret, a secret that even Dog and I didn’t yet know. “Maybe you will. I shall be interested to see how this plays out. I pray you stick to your words.”
“Do not worry about us.” I replied, mostly false bravado, and he knew it. We’d never been so far from home or so alone before. We were creatures of the streets. They were all we knew, and now we’d have to learn to survive in a new place, but we were survivors no matter what.
“Oh, I have a feeling you’ll be sorely tested where you’re going.” Kalb smiled with more than a little menace.
Shortly after, the caravan began moving once more, taking us far enough away that my home city was no longer even visible on the horizon. Even though he said we were near our destination, it was a long while before we got there, and sleep took us first.
As the soldiers closed in around us, Dog and I searched for an out. We were born to evade and escape. Had it just been the soldiers, we’d have made it. We could have bitten and clawed and slid between two of them and lost them in the crowd, even if I didn’t have Claw with me, my sharp sliver of metal. But the soldiers weren’t the only ones there. Wherever we looked to slide away, the collared man and his dog found us.
With a snarl, Dog and I threw ourselves at him, being of one mind. In a flash, his features changed, teeth baring and face narrowing. His eyes, usually an amber color, shifted to golden yellow and bored into us as his claw-like hands seized each of us by the throat. With surprising strength, he lifted both of us clear from the ground. His mastiff growled at our dangling legs, its face so near we could feel the hot breath coming from its massive maw.
The collared man growled deep in his throat. “You’re not getting away this time.”
Our eyes sought out Nokomi’s as she pleaded on our behalf and pulled weakly at the man’s arms. Like a child slapping at a wave, she was nothing to his strength. No wonder, for Dog and I were helpless, too.
All I could do was tell Nokomi a name. Adish would wonder what became of us, and it was clear we’d not see him again. “Adish…” I managed to choke out.
Her terrified eyes registered confusion. “Kalb! You’re hurting them!” She screamed as we choked.
The collared man shrugged her off with a snarl and shifted us around so he held us by the scruffs of our necks, as a mother dog would carry disobedient pups. Then he began pushing his way through the crowd, and he was the sort of man that people parted way for. Many watched, but they did so from a safe distance, regarding the whole lot of us as one might eye a pack of feral dogs. Perhaps it was the yellow eyes or the snarling lips.
I kicked my legs and twisted, only to find his iron grip tighten. “Adish!” I shouted back at her.
“What?” She still didn’t understand.
“Tell Adish and Barid! Tell them about us!”
Nokomi froze, understanding crossing her features. “Kalb! Stop!” Others paused, for she had a commanding tone about her voice, but it had no effect on the man.
The collared man laughed and charged through the last few paces of the Bazaar. Strangely, my eyes finally managed to take in the full wonders of the place, as if gulping down sights I felt I’d never see again. If we were to die or be taken away, Dog and I wanted to remember this place, the place where we were once again brought to Nokomi’s side.
A jail wagon was summoned. Kalb, the collared man was apparently called, stood patiently, holding us as he waited, though he set us down so our feet could touch the ground. No amount of twisting could free of from those hands. The guards flanked around us, a protective circle that would not open to permit Nokomi, though not for lack of trying.
Nokomi tried pleading. “Please, Kalb! He’s my friend.”
“Little Miss, I’m very aware of who this is, of what he is, and your father has plans for them both.” A broad grin broke across Kalb’s bearded face.
I watched that grin from the corner of my eyes and struggled not to tremble with fear. Whatever plans Nokomi’s father envisioned for us, I strongly suspected they meant collars. Would we become like this man? What would we be without our freedom. Even in my oldest memories, we’d always been free. Life had not been easy, but it had been lived by our choices. Now, what would it be?
“Let me say goodbye, at least?” Nokomi made as if she might press between the two guards in front of us, but they did not budge.
“Say your words from there.” Kalb said coldly.
Nokomi’s brow furrowed and her mouth worked, but no words came out. I, too, had no words. Instead, I reached out, and our fingertips nearly met when she reached between the soldiers, but Kalb barked and order and the soldiers closed ranks, denying us even that.
Down the avenue, I could see a jail wagon coming. It must have shown in my eyes, because Nokomi turned and looked. She saw it, too.
“Goren…” She choked out.
“That’s not my name.” I whispered back.
Tears ran freely down her cheeks as they dragged Dog and I toward the wagon. Not one to give up, Dog twisted suddenly and bit Kalb’s into the webbing between his thumb and forefinger, latching tightly about his hand. I began tearing and snarling at him like a beast as well, fighting with every ounce of my strength to be free. How I longed to have Claw in my hands. Why had I forgotten my blade? Had my times with Adish made me so careless?
Kalb grunted, but did not release us no matter how I kicked and jerked at his grasp. I could not free myself, even standing with my feet on his chest, perpendicular to the ground, I could not pull free. Kalb just eyed the two of us with the contempt a proud predator might show for another’s cub or wounded prey. We simply weren’t a threat to him.
The giant mastiff lunged and tore into Dog’s hindquarters. He yelped and was forced to release his jaws from Kalb’s hand. Whimpering and crumpling to the ground, Dog snarled at the larger dog, but he was beaten. I collapsed to the ground, feeling Dog’s agony as sharply as if it were my own. I shielded Dog’s body with my own, no longer caring about escaping; I only wanted to protect Dog. The mastiff backed away from my snarls.
“Kalb!” Nokomi shouted, sharp little knife in hand, raised above her palm.
Kalb shook his head. “No, Little Miss, you wouldn’t.”
She hesitated, knife wavering above her skin. Then she screamed in frustration. Whatever she’d planned on doing was done, and I hardly felt being lifted into the wagon with its bars and locks.
I’d never been in a cage before, but that was not nearly as concerning as the bite on Dog’s flank. Dog and I huddled in the cage, awaiting our fate. Nokomi watched as we began to roll away, and we locked eyes, Dog and I with her.
We burned her face into our souls and watched her fade from sight, lost in the crowds of the city.
A few days later, I discussed the rat meat with Adish, who found the whole situation very amusing. Barid looked a bit ill, having confessed to frequenting that same booth many times without knowing that it was rat he had eaten.
I didn’t understand their distinction between eating rats and goats. They were both made of meat, and one was far easier to catch within the city. I’d even eaten bugs or worms when I was hungry enough, but I did not share this with them, feeling that they might not appreciate what hunger did to you. I doubted they had ever worried about their next meal.
Adish’s mate brought food one day. I’d always wondered where all of Adish’s delicious foods came from, as I’d never seen him actually cook, but on this day, I saw a woman carry in a tray of bowls and a dish of flat bread. Dog’s ears perked, recognizing the clatter of dishes.
“Sherine!” Adish greeted the woman warmly, taking the lunch tray from her. The smells coming off the steaming pot of stew made my stomach grumble. Dog’s nose twitched excitedly, his tail following suit.
Sherine was dressed in long red skirt, covered by a blue-green long tunic that was belted by a thick, braided stretch of cloth that had a decorated tail that hung from her waist. A scarf was draped over her shoulders and around her neck, with a matching one covering most of her dark hair. A few strands of wavy hair had escaped her scarf, sneaking out around her ears down onto her neck and cheeks. She had a kindly look about her. Dog and I instantly liked her.
She greeted Barid warmly, clearly having met him several times before. She knew her husband’s assistant. Then her dark eyes took in the sight of Dog and I. Her hand went to her mouth, and she whispered something to her husband. They shared a significant gaze before she glided over to offer me a hand.
I stood and took her hand in mine, with Dog standing rising beside me, sniffing at her. He recognized her as the creator of many dishes we’d eaten, as a pleasant set of kitchen and food odors had found its way into her clothes and hands.
“I have heard much of you, Go.” She smiled as she said my name and her eyes took on a maternal cast, something I did not quite understand, but felt. “Thank you for helping my husband. Adish is a patient but hardworking man. He works far too long and too hard.” Her husband snorted a laugh.
“He feeds me. He teaches me.” I responded, unsure what else to say.
“You dear thing.” She sighed almost sadly, and regarded Dog. She offered him a hand to sniff. His round ears perked forward and he sniffed carefully, licking her hand just once.
Sherine let loose a girlish trill of a laugh, quickly drawing her hand back to her mouth to cover it as she giggled. “Enjoy the food, you four.” She winked at Dog, whose tongue lolled out. “I must go back home. The children are waiting for their baths.”
This statement startled me. I hadn’t realized that Adish had children of his own. I suspected that Barid was somehow related to Adish, perhaps the offspring of a brother or a friend, but I lacked the words or reason to ask. They looked similar around the eyes and nose, and their close relationship made it seem as if Barid was something of a son to Adish. So, the idea that Adish had actual children at home seemed strange to me. Maybe he was just good with young ones.
I looked at Dog as Sherine retreated. Were me more of his young ones that he cared for?
Then I watched the two of them, husband and wife, whispering to each other in a way that made both of them smile. Their hands briefly touched, their fingertips ever so slightly caressing. Adish touched a loose strand of her hair, tucking it back behind her ear, and a blush filled her cheeks. I watched every detail as she left, favoring Adish with one last look before she went. Dog and I absorbed the exchange it in a way that it stuck with me for days.
In fact, when it was our day off, Dog and I went walking the Lower Market, and I was still thinking about the way they’d acted, pondering the exchange of words that I couldn’t hear or understand. We approached our favorite meat stand, me, absent in thought, and Dog with stomach growling, only to find that we were not welcome there.
“Begone, Bringer of Bad Luck!” The bearded man called out at us as he caught sight of our approach. He actually came out from behind his counter and brandished a knife at us, except I didn’t notice it until I felt a sense of alarm from Dog.
The two of us backed away, our hunger and smiles fading to be replaced with anger at being treated in such a fashion. Dog and I both growled at the man, and his advance failed, but he’d made it clear that we were not going to get any food from him, and we took our business and coins elsewhere.
“Let us find other, tastier rat!” I declared aloud to Dog. He barked in agreement, and the line of customers once again began whispering amongst themselves while the bearded man called what seemed to be very impolite words after us.
Disappointed and hungry, we found ourselves carried with the flow of traffic through the Lower Market, to its edge and the wide avenues beyond. There, carts and trains of wagons driven by oxen and horses alike vied for position to load and unload goods from the markets. People far beyond my simple ability to count roamed the area, all bustling and in a hurry to get somewhere. They were such busy folk, looking like ants scrambling over their hill.
Down the avenue, which was lined by far nicer buildings than those I lived among, I saw a large building with a blinding copper dome atop it, shining like a beacon in the sun. From that direction arose such music, noise, and clamor, that I found myself drawn to it. That way led to the Bazaar, the market for those too rich to bother with the Lower Market. I debated going, and decided it was at least worth a look. And why not? Dog and I had free time and coins to spend.
Dog tagged along at my heels. Together we wove through carts, wagons, carriages, and foot traffic that flowed toward and away from the Bazaar. As we neared the domed building, the clothes of the people around us began to take on more ornamentation. We even saw some people riding on chairs that were carried down the street by sets of four heavily-muscled men, all with shaved heads and all so alike in looks and costume that they may have been born of the same womb. Dog and I looked up at them, wondering if they felt silly being carried when they could be walking. It was certainly not for us, that sort of ride.
The dome marked the large entrance to the Bazaar, which was an expansive building. We darted inside, astonished to find the difference between it and the Lower Market. Where the Lower Market was mostly open air, with canopies stretched overhead and awnings hanging from many stalls, the Bazaar was completely under the roof of a pavilion that stretched as far as my eyes could see, often branching off in side passages that were packed with shops and a press of humanity surging through the place in search of goods. Of course, I could not see that far, truly, because the crowds and sheer quantity of goods displayed in this marketplace were astounding!
There were all manners of people here, with skin in tones I did not even know existed. Many wore strangely decorated clothes, costumes of colors I’d not seen before, or they wore their hair in ways that seemed bizarre to Dog and I. I supposed that, like Dogs, people came in many shapes and styles. We paused to look at a pair of men who wore their hair matted into geometrical patterns and packed with colored clays. One woman wore so many golden rings and bracelets it looked as if she wore golden gloves.
And the animals! The menagerie of creatures displayed just in the first few paces of the Bazaar left me astonished. Many, I’d never seen in my life. The goods were just as varied. I only knew the uses of a fraction of these contraptions and devices that people clamored for.
We shoved deeper, feeling the people gather closer and tighter as we went. Soon, it got to the point where we could no longer just stand and watch, or we’d be pushed aside by the masses of people. Dog and I felt jostled like we’d never been in the Lower Markets or even the cramped alleyways we’d grown up in. Faces, feet, clothes, and bodies pressed all around us, pushing this way or that.
We darted one way, only to find our way blocked by an entourage of baggage carriers proceeding in the opposite direction, following their masters. Turning another way, we were blocked by two men carrying a raw goat, trussed up to a long stretch of wood. There was no end to these people! It was maddening.
Dog snarled and we pushed our way through the crowd finally, finding an opening next to a small shop that sold bolts of fabric that had been arranged in arcs of color for the customers to examine. I’d never seen such an assortment of colors. A few women milled about, whispering to each other or touching this fabric or that, but we were free of the press of people that pushed down the main aisle of the Bazaar. Dog and I gazed back at the traffic, not relishing the thought of riding that flood back the way we’d come in.
Kneeling beside Dog, we took comfort in the brief respite. My fingers dug into his coarse fur, ruffling it, feeling the oils of his fur as they rubbed into my hands. His eyes sought mine, and he gave me a reassuring lick on the face. I smiled at him, and everything was right again, if just for a moment.
I stood again and took in my surroundings. We were in a small side row off the main aisle. The main aisle was to our right, the fabric shop was in front us, and behind us was another shop where a wizened old man sat in a rocking chair, staring at us. His hair was long, as were his fingernails. He held a long pipe in his mouth, which smoldered with a cloyingly sweet smoke that was nearly blue. Beside him sat dozens of wooden boxes filled with dried leaves and other herbs that smelled quite strongly, even more so to Dog, who huffed and backed away. The man made no reaction to us, but continued to watch with something that could not even be called interest. However, he sprang up from his chair and came to life as a customer approached.
Still, I had this feeling like we were being watched. If it had not been the man, then who was it? Dog and I were usually quite good with this sort of a thing. It was a survival instinct, the ability to know when you were being watched. Our eyes scanned the main row, but those people were too busy moving about their own business. The women at the cloth shop had cast occasional glances our way, but they were warier than anything, and they were more interested in Dog than they were in me. Most likely, they worried about being bitten or me stealing their money.
I was suddenly very aware that my clothes marked me as something of an undesirable. Adish and Barid had never made me feel that way, but I was clearly an outsider here. Perhaps I would have to buy nicer clothes, supposing we ever came to this crowded place again. Somehow, I doubted we would.
The feeling of being watched persisted. Dog and I swiveled around, looking past these first two shops to the next two down our row. One sold ornamental birds, all in cages fashioned of delicate curls of silver and bronze that I doubted Adish could match. His metalworking was more functional than beautiful. I scanned the scarved women and the robed men viewing the cages, but could find none that were more interested in me than the colorful birds with their long feathers and curiously-shaped beaks.
The other shop had dozens of small glass vials, and the smell coming from them was quite heady. The assault of scents was quite strong; most were floral, but many were musky as well or somewhere in-between. A short, bald man with a thin grey mustache that had been shaped to curl at its ends seemed to run the shop. His robes were ornate and immaculate, and he smelled like a flower garden after a rain shower brought them into bloom. It was odd, very unlike the masculine scents of sweat, fire, and metal I was used to smelling on Adish, odors accumulated from his work around the forge. I doubted this man had ever been forced to work up a sweat.
A flash of white skirts and a reddish-brown vest caught my eyes, one of the many customers gathered around the decorative merchant. I looked more closely, taking in the golden embroidery that lined the vest and also the matching shawl that was draped over the girl’s shoulders. Long, black hair had been combed and gathered until hardly a strand was out of place, and a strand of gold ornaments wrapped over the crown of her head and around her forehead. Through that, a pair of coffee eyes met my gaze, and my forehead began to tingle.
My mouth felt dry. My chest felt weird. The discomfort in my forehead became a burning that ran down my neck to my chest.
Dog whined beside me.
“Nokomi!” I’d practiced those syllables for years. It was the first new word I’d learned to speak after we parted all those years ago, and here she was now, and here I was saying her name.
“Goren!” Her eyes widened in recognition, mostly because of Dog beside me. Me, alone, she’d likely not have recognized, but with Dog beside me, we were unmistakable. She had likely been watching us without knowing who we were.
“Go.” I corrected, stepping over to her with leaden feet. I’d dreamed of this moment when our pack might be made whole again, but now I didn’t know how to act. I didn’t want it to not be true, and it felt as if walking to her might dispel the dream.
She swept over to me gracefully, reaching for my hands. A pair of confused maids flanked her, covering their mouths and staring at Dog and I as if we were not to be trusted, let alone touched.
“Go.” I repeated as her hands sought mine.
“I know.” She said softly, except it sounded like the loudest words in the world.
All the noise of the Bazaar faded away. I could not hear the call of hawkers, the clanking of knives and tools, the clink of coins, the sounds of animals, or the footsteps of hundreds of people. I took no notice of her maids or their whispers.
The tingle in my forehead became a burning. I reached to it, wincing as I recalled the savage rip the cat had dealt to my face on the day I’d met Nokomi. Dog had licked it clean for days, and the flesh had been warm and puffy, but it had never become infected as it likely should have.
Nokomi’s hand covered mine on my forehead, gently lifting it aside. Her features formed a frown as she looked me over. “I still feel you in here.” She whispered, amazed and clearly surprised.
“Mistress…” The maids tried to intervene, but Nokomi ignored them. We were the only three beings in the world.
I tried to explain. “I never stopped feeling it…”
“Feeling you.” She elaborated.
I nodded, knowing it to be true. I’d always known she was still alive, however distant and removed she might have been. It was like knowing you had a scar or a mole on your back. You might not be able to see it, but you knew it was there after seeing it in a reflection just once.
“Nokomi…” I repeated, at a loss for words otherwise.
She looked about to say something when Dog growled, pulling himself from Nokomi’s hand, the one that had sought the top of his head the same way her other hand had sought out my forehead, connecting the three of us.
I shook my head, blinking as a face swam into view, that of the collared man that had been with Nokomi’s father that one day so long ago. A deep growl from beside us warned us that his mastiff was here as well. The man’s lips curled into a smile.
“We meet again, boy.”
Nokomi turned to protest, but it was too late. With a wave of his hands, Dog and I were surrounded by a group of guards and their pointy weapons. Nokomi’s maids shrieked and hid themselves.
Strong as I was for my size and age, I was not going to win his fight, not the way they had us hedged in with steel. If I fought, he died. Dog and I knew we were about to be forced apart from Nokomi for the second time, and we didn’t know if we’d ever see her again.
National Novel Writing Month 2019: The Emperor's Dogs