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 could hear Legs and his dog approach. The scraping of boots and a dog’s toenails announced their arrival. I hurried to the door and let them in quickly, glancing around the pathways of our little village, but no one was watching. The dogs greeted each other while we clasped hands and clapped each other across the back.
In the hours since witnessing General Navid’s audience with the Emperor, I’d eagerly awaited this meeting. In my time fighting on the border to protect our kingdom’s interests, I rarely had opportunities to catch up with one of my old pack mates from the Kennel. We had a shared history that made us close, no matter what had happened since.
Legs removed his boots, placing them beside the door, and moved to join me at the small table I’d had set up in the middle of the floor. His dog settled in beside him, resting its muzzle on his lap. Dog circled the table once and then settled in between me and Leg’s dog.
“Just like the old days.” Legs remarked, eyeing the basket sitting in the middle of the table.
During our days at that special school, each day’s lessons had been followed by an evening meal with a basket of food that we shared amongst our pack. Each instructor had left special cloths in the basket, so you always knew if you’d seen Red, Blue, or Grey that day. Our performances in the different subjects they taught had resulted in different rewards. On a good day in class, there had been better treats in the basket. So, I’d purposely chosen a white cloth for this basket, seeing as how it had no attached meaning to it, and it would not be associated with any negative memories.
Our pack, Pack Panj, had been the fifth group at the school. We’d been the junior team, younger and less experienced than all of the others. Despite some initial successes, it had taken weeks of punishing, grueling lessons before we’d started to hold our own. Some of that had largely been due to my own nature, but much had been because of our collaborations with other packs, those willing to train us during off times.
We’d turned enemies into allies, growing in strength until we could consistently defeat our rival, Pack Chahar. In the end, those victories had cost one of our pack more than even I liked to admit. Pack Chahar’s leader, Drum, had taken out his frustrations and anger on Tiny. Tiny had been the smallest member of our team, and his dog had been even smaller, a tenacious handful of a dog. Drum’s beast of a dog, Bear, had killed Little Dog in a fit of rage, and the death of his dog had nearly killed Tiny as well.
The Emperor, witness to the murder of Little Dog, had allowed the packs to decide upon Drum’s sentence and me to carry it out. I’d ripped his throat out while half given to my beast. Somewhere between animal and man, I’d watched the blood flow from Drum’s ruined throat to color the sand. That death had been the final thing needed to change the Kennel.
We’d unified into a single pack: Pack Sefr. Kalb had overseen the restructuring of the school and its lessons according to our demands, and the Emperor got the army he’d desired. I’d trained dozens of kids and their dogs since that day, but that had been where it all started.
“All or nothing.” I whispered, a mantra to honor the fallen. Sefr meant zero, or nothing. We were all together, we of the Old Blood, or we would amount to nothing.
“All or nothing.” Legs echoed sadly, clearly recalling Tiny and Little Dog.
We dug into the basket, pulling out the smoked meat, dried apricots, and dark bread I’d procured for this meeting. A carafe of lemon water and two small cups sat beside it. We ate quietly, enjoying the simple flavors.
“Have you seen any of the others?” Legs asked as he finished the last bite of apricots.
I tried to recall when I’d last seen any of the faces from the Kennel and my days there. It felt like lifetimes ago. “I served with Killer and Scar when we put down the bandits near Gorla. The last time I saw Face was near Epim. He may still be stationed there. I’d also heard that Sardar and several of Pack Yek are together somewhere, but they’re working on guard duty. They’re not much for killing, but protecting is something they do well.”
Legs nodded, absorbing the news.
“And you?” I asked.
“I haven’t seen any of the others in a couple years. My last contact was with Fire and Mongrel. We were scouts together for several months. I was there when they died.” Legs admitted, playing with the fringe of the white cloth that hung from the basket.
“How did it happen?” I’d known of their deaths, but I wasn’t privy to such information. Someone hadn’t thought I needed to know.
“We were scouting an encampment near Uman. It was a trap. We fought and took several of them out before our backup arrived, but we’re not faster than arrows.” He bared his left arm to show a scar that must’ve hurt.
“Most of us aren’t faster than arrows anyway.” I knew he’d been hurt, but if anyone I’d ever met could dodge an arrow meant as a kill shot, it would be Legs.
Legs laughed, but quickly sobered. “Yeah, but I wasn’t about to leave them behind. Their dogs fell alongside them.”
“That was probably for the best.” I said softly.
“I know.” He agreed. “Have you heard anything from Tiny? Anything at all?”
Tiny had been given a chance to bond with the same dog that had killed his own, but he’d never been the same afterward. Bonding with Bear might have kept him alive, but they were both damaged creatures. It had been Sardar, the oldest boy from the Kennel, who’d told us about the re-bonding process. He’d also lived through a loss and bonded with a dog that would have died from the loss of a master. Together, they’d cobbled together a new existence, not better or worse than their original bonds, but different.
I eyed Legs for a moment, trying to decide how much he needed to know. I’d heard rumors, but I knew little more than what I’d known since Tiny had left the Kennel. “You know that Tiny left us, Legs. He headed out into the desert, last I heard. He spoke to me before he went. He was never going to be a soldier again. He couldn’t risk losing another dog, or he would have died for certain. He’d lost his will to fight and kill.”
“I wonder if he was the lucky one.” Legs sighed, playing with his dog’s muzzle. “He got out.”
“He did.” I agreed, though I did not envy what he had gone through to get out. And honestly, I wasn’t sure I wanted out.
I’d found that I actually enjoyed training new boys and dogs to grow their bonds, to reach for their own versions of the beasts that lurked in their natures. I may not have always agreed with what they were being used for, but I enjoyed the teaching. I also knew I would have fought for a dozen more years and killed a hundred men if that was what it would have taken to get back to Nokomi.
“But what of General Navid?” I asked. “How is it that he came to know of us and to select you for his honor guard?”
Legs’ long face darkened. “It was his mission that Fire and Mongrel died on. He was in the vanguard of the force that came to our rescue. We were fighting for our lives, and he saw that we were different. Normal men don’t fight like we do. He saw a bit of the beast in me. It was too late for him to see the others changed in battle.”
So he blamed Navid for their deaths, at least in part? I frowned at that, but had deeper worries. “And now he knows everything?”
Legs shook his head. “No. He questioned me at length about where I’d learned what I knew, how I’d trained, and how many more of us there were.”
“He isn’t the type to let such a thing go.”
“No, he didn’t. He was insistent, so I was vague, mentioning that I’d been trained with a small group of boys, and that he’d just witnessed most of their deaths. For a long time, I played it off as if we were just a special scout division, but he had seen too much.”
“He must have scoured the army for more boys with dogs like you.” I surmised.
“He did. He even found a few of his own in the cities we went through. Two of those that arrived today are like us, of the Old Blood, but they were never at the Kennel or one of the other schools.”
“Raw talent.” I appreciated that, but didn’t like what it would mean if they were honed and sharpened into the type of tools that Navid required.
Navid didn’t understand what we were, and he would not be able to work with our kind in the ways we needed. That’s why Kalb had overseen the school’s transition, and why I had assisted in redesigning the instruction. Like any animal, we had needs that had to be met, and it took one like him or I to make sure we were shown how to reach our full potential. Much in the way a dog can be trained to be loyal and protect a family, that same dog can also be turned into a dangerous killer if it is not raised right.
“Things are in motion, Legs. These are dangerous times, and General Navid looks to be trying to create a force loyal to him.”
Legs nodded in agreement. He’d witnessed some of these things firsthand. “Just let me know what I can do, Go.”
“Listen carefully to every word General Navid says.” I suggested. “Figure out what he is and is not saying, and report back to me when you can. Be discrete, and understand that our true loyalty is to the Emperor and not to his brother.”
“And to Pack Sefr.” Legs smiled, patting his dog’s head.
“Pack Sefr.” I nodded, but I knew where my true loyalty was, and I wondered what she was doing at that moment.
Morning found me at the palace gates, or near them anyway. I watched from one of the covered pavilions that faced the gates, which I’d discovered upon my initial entrance to the palace grounds almost two weeks before. They made for a great vantage point, as I was able to see over the outer palace walls and into the city beyond.
I leaned on a polished rail, looking southward at the approaching procession, and it was definitely a procession. Some officials might travel with just a party of soldiers to guard them, an honor guard or escort, but General Navid traveled with half an army. I heard them and felt the vibrations of hoofbeats and footsteps before I saw the column approach. What was the point of it? I frowned at the whole affair.
Emperor Baraz was generally well-liked, especially considering that he was something of a conqueror. His family had taken this land and reforged it as a kingdom. He had been fair, if stern, and the people had prospered in the years since they’d taken power. His wife and daughters were considered nothing short of beloved treasures of the land. So what was General Navid getting out of this parade?
It was then that I noticed the reaction the column was having on the village south of the palace, where all of the officials and merchants held their estates. All of the most important folks of the city were witness to his arrival, and I imagined that the rest of the city had been similarly impressed as he’d wound his way through the streets with this column. It was a show of force and support, one that rivaled anything the Emperor had shown in recent years.
Then again, the Emperor was not one that required frivolous pomp or ceremony. He wouldn’t bother the people with a march of force through the city just to look important. He was the sort that led out front, by example, not by show.
I saw many of the troops halt as they approached the palace gates. Clearly, the entire military column would not be permitted entry. There were not enough lodgings for such an enormous troop. Many of them would shelter in the city or quarter themselves in the lodgings south of the palace. It was a contradictory thing, because quartering soldiers in private homes was not the sort of thing that endeared you to the populace, which seemed to be part of the purpose behind this parade, but it did make a very strong show of force.
The lead portion of the column split off, which included General Navid and his most trusted advisors. Dog stood at attention as this separate cadre approached the gates. I knew why. My eyes narrowed, focusing on a group of six soldiers on foot beside the mounted officers. Each of the six soldiers had a dog running beside them, and I could make out a red wolf’s head painted on each of their left shoulders. One, in particular, I knew.
Legs. He’d been a timid boy when we’d met in the Kennel. Fate had thrown him into the same pack as me, and we’d become friends. I still remember the way he’d looked on that first day. He’d been taller than me, with a long-limbed running dog as his companion, both of them skittish and afraid. Even in the time we’d served together on the borders, I’d never met a faster man or dog. Now, he was wearing a red wolf’s head on his shoulder and accompanying General Navid in his honor guard.
What had I missed in the short days since I’d left the front lines? We had not been stationed in the same area, but I had never head of these wolf’s head soldier markings.
I descended from my place along the rails of on the third floor, finding it too crowded for my liking. Dog didn’t care for all of the pointless chatter beside us anyway. I waited in the crowd that was beginning to gather along the ground level. Curiosity was certainly getting the better of some people, and Navid was the Emperor’s brother after all.
Dog and I moved through the crowd, finding a place where we could be out front and see what was going on, but also remain obscured by shadows and the crowds, but not so much that the dog soldiers couldn’t see us. Kalb had asked us to follow General Navid, but I felt very strongly that Legs would be a better source of information, and I wanted to make sure he saw us. We didn’t have long to wait.
General Navid easily cleared the guard station, and his officers fell in alongside him. Three dog soldiers trotted easily along at each flank of the entourage. Legs and two others I did not know were going to pass us by on our side. That I did not know them said something as to the widespread nature of the Emperor’s Dogs. I knew at least a hundred of our kind from training, drills, and tours on the border, but there were always others I did not know.
We waited, watching General Navid shout encouragements and wave at the people that gathered to witness his arrival. Flowers and palm branches were thrown down in his pathway, and people bowed to the Emperor’s brother. I watched him swell with pride, shouting out about how he’d just returned from conquering our enemy’s strongholds.
If that was so, why had he pulled half of the border guard with him to march back home? How would they hold Saluud against the Kingdom of Arven? I spat on the ground, uncaring of who saw me. I liked Navid not at all, finding him to be a smugger version of Baraz. He was not his brother. My nostrils and eyes told me all I wanted to know of this man as he passed.
Dog barked as Legs trotted past, and he came to a quick halt, his long-legged dog sliding to a stop beside him.
“Captain Goren?” He stared at me in surprise.
I smiled at him. His face was long and narrow, much like his dog’s face. His ears weren’t long, furry, and droopy like his dog’s though. Still, the two of them shared much in the way of appearance and mannerisms. They were both very alert and jumpy, but I knew him to be a steadfast companion. Maybe that’s why it hurt me to see him wearing the red wolf’s head device of General Navid.
I stepped out of the crowd and drew Legs into a hug. “I’ve missed you, Legs.” I wouldn’t use his civilized name, even if I knew he went by Zarek in normal situations. To me, he’d always be Legs, part of Pack Panj, from our time in the Kennel.
“It is good to see you, Go.” He grinned, using my familiar name as well. It was the way of our kind. If we knew our true names, we would use them amongst ourselves.
“We need to talk.” I whispered into his ear, tone relaying my seriousness completely.
He nodded ever so slightly, replying, “There is much to tell, Captain.”
“Seek me out in the scribe’s village north of the royal residence as soon as you can get away.”
Legs nodded and fell back into his position in the honor guard without a second look back. He was swift enough that it seemed as if he’d never missed a step, but General Navid had noticed. Our eyes met, and I held my face expressionless, even as his darkened.
Did he know what I was? Likely, seeing Dog beside me. Did he know who I was? He was a clever man, and it would not surprise me if he recognized me, even though we’d never been formally introduced. I was not a thing to hold his attention for long, at least, because he had more officials and courtiers to impress with his arrival, but I doubted he’d forget me.
I followed them, using my knowledge of the layout of the palace to circumvent crowds and obstacles. Dog and I were like shadows, mirroring the General’s movements as we recorded the faces of those who seemed most pleased by his arrival, as well as those who seemed least enamored of his boastful proclamations of victory at Saluud. A few, I could put names with faces, but they were few indeed.
Eventually, most of his guards peeled away, leaving only Navid and two of his most sturdy companions, both of which moved with the deadly confidence only the most efficient warriors managed. I frowned and continued through the palace to a meeting room where the Emperor, the Empress, and Minister Kalb awaited General Navid.
Kalb had let me know where to meet them, so I’d hidden my court scribe’s uniform ahead of time in a nearby room. I made the switch quickly, and proceeded into the room ahead of the General’s arrival without Dog. Dog disliked leaving me in a situation like this, but he obeyed. He understood the need for stealth when stalking prey. A dog would draw too much attention, even if I wore a disguise.
I’d not been in this audience room before, not for any official purpose, but I knew what it was, and I’d peeked in from three different entry points during my explorations. I chose the most discrete entrance and slid in quietly. Kalb noticed me immediately, raised an eyebrow as I took an inconspicuous location at the side with other officials, and then studiously ignored me. The Emperor and Empress gave no sign whether they’d noticed me or not, but I suspected that both had.
From my seat, I ignored curious glances from the other officials near me, studying the room instead. It was stately without being overstated or lavish. The raised platform at the end had simple chairs, not thrones, but when the Emperor sat on a chair, he elevated it to the status of a throne. He was just that sort of person. Similarly, the Empress sat with grace upon a cushioned chair beside him, making it both elegant and stately by her pose and the simple sophistication of her silk gown, which carefully emphasized her growing belly.
I smiled at the signal the Empress was giving to what she clearly thought of as a rival. It was clearly done on purpose. The Empress played a dangerous game. Did she know how dangerous? Did she suspect Navid as I did, or was this just a game of position and jockeying for strength?
Navid entered at long last, not waiting to be announced. He doffed his helmet and carried it at his side, under his arm and upon his hip. If he’d just traveled across the kingdom, it was hard to tell. His clothes had little sign of dust, and his face, having been under the helmet, had only the slightest trace of sweat upon it. He strode in powerfully, his other hand resting on his sword hilt. He offered the slightest bow, smiling broadly at his brother and his brother’s wife.
“Navid.” Emperor Baraz named his brother with obvious displeasure.
“Brother.” Navid responded warmly, ignoring any negative expression on his brother’s face. He nodded to the Empress next. “Sister.”
She was not his actual sister, obviously, but he named her so with familiarity because it placed him on a level with her. She was his brother’s wife, and a sister-in-law was much less of a threat than an Empress.
The Empress inclined her head, neither warmly nor coolly. It was just a simple shift of her head. She adjusted her skirts and crossed her legs the opposite way, resting both hands on her belly, once more emphasizing her pregnant state.
Navid’s expression tightened ever so slightly, likely imperceptibly to anyone without my senses. “I have come with great news of victory, brother!”
“You mean of war?” Kalb interrupted.
Navid looked taken aback at being questioned by the minister. “War? Far from it. We have taken Saluud almost bloodlessly and we hold it with ease. The Kingdom of Arven has very little chance of retaking it without a terrible cost. We hold the upper hand for certain.”
Kalb glared imposingly down at the general from where he stood beside the Emperor, looking twice his height even without the steps. Teeth stirred at his side. “And what of our other neighbors? Will they not turn their favor from us? Will they not see us as an aggressive threat? If we take every city that benefits us, we are conquerors, not peaceful neighbors. You overreach, thinking only of the short term, Navid.”
Navid shook his head and laughed derisively. “Strategy from a dog.”
When Teeth stood and growled, the two helmeted soldiers beside the general shifted their feet and twitched their hands, readying to pull blades if necessary, but Navid held up his hand. “Peace, minister. I mean only to speak to my brother, but, as always, you seek to interject your wisdom.”
The Emperor cleared his throat. “I have the utmost confidence in Minister Kalb’s assessment of the situation. I told you to watch the borders, not move on a neighboring, friendly country. Now, all of our neighbors will sharpen their sword and wonder which of them is next. Instead of seeking more favorable trade agreements, we will have to allay their fears and offer some recompense to Arven for taking their land.”
“A wolf does not apologize for its nature.” Navid scoffed. “Why do we bow and scrape and dance around the issue? We needed that port. Saluud was a necessary annexation if we are to build our nation’s economy!”
“And I had plans for that, plans that would have assured a peaceful transition. Why do you think it was so unguarded? Was it a mistake that they had but a bare garrison in that city?” The Emperor steepled his hands, frowning deeply.
Navid looked lost for words. He swallowed hard and waited. The Emperor looked ready to say something in anger, but the Empress reached over and placed her hand on top of her husband’s hand. It had a calming effect, but the anger was still palpable.
“People fear a conqueror, kingdoms even more so. This is not how we build our nation.” Baraz said at last.
“I was seeking to create a future for our kingdom and our family.” Navid protested.
Emperor Baraz shook his head. “No, brother, you thought only of your own glories. You are not supposed to decide such things. That is why I am Emperor. You are a general, a leader of soldiers, and you go where I ask and fight when I ask you to fight.”
“I will never stop fighting to guarantee a future for my nieces and this family,” Navid’s eyes strayed toward the Empress at this, “and some day in the future, they will have need of a kingdom that has no fears from its neighbors.”
Kalb took a step down, lifting a hand like a proper statesman. “Arven is a kingdom of merchants and sailors. They understand trade and honor their deals. Contracts are law to them, and they always follow the letter of the law. You’ve slapped them across the face and taken with force that which we would’ve been given for proper compensation. We will still have to compensate them, only more for their losses and this insult to their honor. Future dealings with them will forever be fraught with doubt because of your deeds.”
Baraz glanced at Kalb, who stepped back without being told to. “Amongst kingdoms, there must be trust. My word, the word of our nation, it must mean something, or we are just bandits and raiders. Is that what you would have of me?”
“No, brother.” Navid put on an expression that indicated he had been properly chastised, but I could hear in his breathing and his heartrate that he was anything but. “What would you have of me? Would you have me deliver the payment to Arven? I will make amends if I must. It is, after all, my fault. Perhaps if you’d told me what you planned instead of keeping me in the dark…”
Baraz saw where this was going. “I tell you what you need to know. Do not think to shift blame to me.”
Navid winced. “I didn’t mean to…”
“Don’t mince words with me. I know you too well.” Baraz snarled.
“Brother, tell me what you would have of me then.” Navid implored.
“You can do nothing. Sit in the palace and stay out of trouble. The Kingdom of Arven deserves to hear this from me. I am responsible for you, and I will have to handle this.”
The Empress grimaced. She did not want to be separated from her husband, not when her child was due soon. For her sake, I hoped he’d at least be able to stay until the child was born before heading to the border to meet with the merchant’s council of Arven.
“As you wish, brother.” Navid lowered his head, jaw tight, but was there the slightest hint of a smile there?
“Yes, as I wish.” Baraz repeated, waving his brother off.
Navid’s face as a complicated mask of control. He longed to say something and react, but he did not. He swallowed it down and bowed deeply. Then he turned on his heel, replacing his helmet. His soldiers fell in beside him.
National Novel Writing Month 2019: The Emperor's Dogs