My first memories of Nokomi were of her warm eyes, her fine linen clothes, and her feet dirtied by treading in the filthy streets where I lived. They were of a pomegranate shared between us, the quiet peace of listening to her voice, and our comingled blood dripping in that alleyway.
I could never forget our first meeting. I had been nothing more than a street urchin with a wild dog at my side, and she had been a kind, beautiful girl about my age. We’d bonded that day, sharing fruit while she told her stories that we couldn’t understand, and later as we’d fought the desert cat. By accident, her fire-filled blood had worked its way into the wounds that the cat had inflicted upon me; I feel it still in my forehead when my emotions run high. And then Dog had licked my wounds clean and transferred some of that same blood into his own wounds when he cleaned his own torn flesh with his tongue. The three of us had become a pack in that moment, and everything I’d done since then was to get back to her.
That perfect day had ended when soldiers arrived with her father, who I’d later learned was the Emperor. Seeing how I had been covered with blood, they’d made the snap judgement that I had been a threat to the princess. I understand it, but it had made Dog and I part from Nokomi. We’d fled and ran to hide, though it had been like tearing off a limb to separate from ourselves from her.
Years had passed, years with her unnaturally severed from our pack, but always on our minds. I’d learned words, enough to speak at least, and I’d taken to working at the side of a blacksmith, growing more human to better understand Nokomi’s world. We’d done our best at growing and learning until we happened across her once more in the Bazaar, the city’s great market. She had grown and changed as we had, but we knew her immediately. The bond between us had not broken or faded, even if we had been apart.
Our second meeting was one that Dog and I hadn’t been able to escape from. Instead, we’d been taken away as captives to work in the Kennel – a school for special boys like me with an affinity for beasts.
You see, Dog and I were special. We weren’t just a kid and a dog living in the streets together. We were a pack in more than just the social sense. We shared everything, from scents and feelings to food. I could taste what he tasted, feel what he felt, and hear what he heard. We shared pain, the excitement of the hunt, and thoughts. We were two creatures with one soul, and the bond made each of us more than what we would have been alone. There was no truer thing than that.
Without Dog, I would’ve died in those alleys as a small child. Without me, Dog would have been caged and killed in the fighting pits, made to fight animals until he finally lost a match and his life. Together, we survived, grew, and connected to each other on a level that went beyond thought and life.
So it was that the two of us, a wild dog and an even wilder boy of the streets, came to that special school. We changed things there, too. Changes have always swirled about us, intentional or not. We created a single pack out of the dozens of boys and dogs there, taking the splintered pieces and forging them as a whole. After all, that was what the Emperor had wanted, even if it came about differently than he’d expected. It had not been a painless process. We’d lost friends, and I’d had to kill for the first time, feeding the beast side of my nature.
Despite all of that, the Emperor still needed us. He wanted a weapon unlike anything our kingdom or any of our neighboring kingdoms had ever seen, and we gave it to him. We of the Old Blood, men bonded with animals, were a leftover from ages past, before Emperor Baraz and his fire bloods had come and conquered our savage land. With my help, we’d unified the boys and created a special army for him. All I’d done, I’d done in the hope of returning to Nokomi’s side.
I’d taken boys like Legs, the fastest kid and dog I knew, or Killer, a stout and stoic companion, and Sardar, a quiet source of wisdom, and I’d made loyal soldiers of them. Under the guidance of Kalb, the Emperor’s own dog man and the original source of inspiration for this army, I’d done everything asked of me and more, but nothing had carried me back to Nokomi.
I’d taken our regiment out amongst the regular army, blending our beast-like natures until we were nearly indistinguishable from the other soldiers, at least until one of our dogs decided it was time to show our true natures. All it took was one sight of what we could do, and the other soldiers never forgot that we were a breed apart. The illusions were dispelled and the masks were pulled back. It was impossible to unsee one of us in our true form.
With the army, or sometimes in small strike groups formed of our own kind, we’d worked the borders, rooting out insurgents and spies. We’d fought in battles against bandits and would-be invaders. I’d killed with my bare hands and with my teeth, Dog snarling alongside me the whole time. I’d lost allies, pack members that I’d personally trained. I’d seen members of my pack go mad from the loss of their dogs, and dogs refuse to live after the loss of their human companions. Death was a constant companion, like the scent of smoke that worked its way into clothing, never to be completely removed.
Despite all of this, I never got closer to my true goal of being once more beside Nokomi, the Emperor’s daughter and the third true member of my pack. Until now, that was.
After five years of training, teaching, and fighting, after the grueling weeks and months on the road, with all of the dust and sand and blood, I was finally being called back to the capitol. The payoff for all of our hard work was finally here.
Standing in the desert sand away from the tent city of our camp, with the morning wind whipping grit into my face, I reread my latest orders, so fresh that I could smell the fingers that had sealed the wax mingled with the scent of the courier. Dog was there beside me, and he knew what was coming before I even spoke to him. He knew my thoughts and could feel my exultation.
“We’re going back, Dog.” I said contentedly, and the weight of the years of service fell from me as I scratched between Dog’s ears. “Home.”
He barked and thumped his tail on the sand, turning his head in the direction of the city, even though it was several days’ travel away. We always knew where Nokomi was, and I suspected that she could feel the same.
We were pack, after all.
The Emperor’s Dogs
by Andrew Frinkle
A boy, his dog, and a princess...
CAST OF CHARACTERS
National Novel Writing Month 2019: The Emperor's Dogs