We cut our way through the defenses that tried to hold us back from reaching the palace walls. The front gates were the obvious route of attack, since the Emperor had destroyed them when he died, but we knew they would be heavily defended. We went that way anyway, perhaps because it was so obvious, but also because Nokomi had a need to return through the same gates where her father had died.
The estates along the avenue leading to the gate were shells at best, crumbled pieces of foundation that had bene mostly blown apart in the explosion. The pit in the middle of the road, the epicenter of the explosion, was fused like volcano glass. The heat must have been truly incredible.
Unlike her father’s entourage, we were not so easily taken by surprise. Nasha’s scouting revealed the fighters waiting to ambush us, and we took them by surprise instead. We were merciless, but not without sense. We were not a pack of ravening beasts. The Princess’ Dogs were a weapon, surgical and precise in our violence.
Nokomi paused only briefly at the exact spot where her father had loosed all of his heartfire in one last deadly blast. She looked to me, and I nodded encouragement to her. She took a breath and fixed her eyes on the makeshift gates that had been erected in the weeks since we’d fled the palace.
Heavy timbers had been placed where the gates had been blown apart. While they had not been mudded into place or finished with the tiled roofing to match the rest of the walls, they were sturdy. They may have lacked ornamentation, but they would hold against an army without a battering ram or the ability to leap to the top of the walls.
Still, that would be a costly battle, costing as much in time as in lives. Time was a luxury we did not have. We had to get to Navid quickly, before he could flee. I’d already left a small contingent in the home that Kalb had used to hide Nasha’s existence, on the off chance that Navid tried to slip out the same way we had, though I doubted he would be that obvious.
“It’s time.” I suggested and Dog echoed, our voices still strange in our pointed ears.
Nokomi had been carrying fire in her palm, but had not yet had an occasion to use it. We’d kept her guarded well enough that she’d not had to join the fighting, so she might save her heartfire for situations like this. Our pack could certainly take the walls and bypass the gates, but we might have need of the soldiers we’d lose here.
“My turn.” Nokomi agreed.
She stepped forward to face the gate, keeping just out of range of arrows. Dog and I stood beside her just in case. We would not let a random arrow end our vengeance, not with our goal so near.
Nokomi concentrated her energy and will into the ball of fire that danced on her fingertips, and we watched it grow to burn so brightly that we had to turn our eyes away for fear of going blind. When she’d gathered all the light she needed into the sphere, she wound up and cast it at the gates. That ball of light flew straight and true, flying farther than I would have thought possible to throw such a thing. The globe arced through the air, striking dead center in the middle of the gates.
It hit, splashing like a tomato, and the liquid fire immediately started burning wherever the droplets landed. Even the sand at the base of the gates caught fire. Her blood as good a fuel as any oil, and in moments the entire new gate was on fire. More than that, the fire seemed alive, and it burrowed through the wood where it had struck, sizzling and melting the wood as if it were sugar in hot tea.
Screams erupted from behind the walls, where some must have been too near the fire when it burned through. The fire grew, taking on a life of its own until it had engulfed the entire gate complex. Even from our distance, we could feel the warmth of the fire on our faces.
We had but to wait. And howl.
The pack’s howled for Navid’s blood, growing louder as the fire grew stronger, reaching a crescendo as the gate finally collapsed in on itself, sending up a shower of sparks that danced like fireflies in the rapidly-approaching night.
Nokomi strode toward the fallen gates and parted the sparks with a spreading motion of her hands. I watched in surprise as the fire, even the small pieces of it in the air, obeyed her. It was, after all, a part of her.
Soldiers had arranged themselves in a half ring within the walls, far enough from the fire to not get burned, but close enough to encircle any attackers that dared to enter through the destroyed gates. We heard crossbows being cranked and bowstrings going taut.
“The two open pavilions facing us are loaded with archers and bowmen.” Nasha reported, her eyes out of focus as she saw through Zephyr’s eyes. She looked fiercer than I’d ever seen, with the hot winds from the fire blowing back through her dark hair and her mouth turned upward in a satisfied smile.
“Do we have an archer?” Nokomi asked, looking around at the lot of us.
I looked to Scar, and he quickly located arrows and a bow that had belonged to a waiting assassin that would never pull another bowstring. Among us, Mongrel was the best archer, so he drew an arrow and stood at the ready, awaiting Nokomi’s command.
“See if you can hit each of those towers.” She suggested, reaching out to ignite the arrowhead with the blood on her palm.
She held the arrow until the arrowhead glowed white and the wood it touched sizzled. If there had been an moisture left within the shaft of the arrow, it had just vaporized.
“Don’t let Adish see you doing that.” I remarked.
She grinned at me, her eyes more alive in the light of her heartfire than I’d ever seen them. “How do you think we reforged my father’s sword?”
I blinked at her in surprise. She wasn’t kidding about using her blood in the forge. That gave even more meaning to the blade she carried. She’d spilt her own blood to make it.
Mongrel drew back the bow and loosed the heartfire arrow. It sailed through the sky like a shooting star, piercing the roof of the western pavilion. While Nokomi lit the second arrow, the first one burst into flames on the roof. Under that extreme heat, even the stone roof burned. Hot melted stone rooftiles dripped down onto the archers below as the structure began to go up in earnest. I remembered standing on that pavilion as Navid had made his triumphant return and going down the stairs to meet Legs. Now, it was burning.
The second arrow hit lower, on the observation levels of the eastern pavilion tower. Men tried to splash water on the fire or stamp it out, but this was no ordinary fire, and it blazed far too hot for simple things to put out. This was living fire – it sought destruction and found it.
With the archers disabled and the company of soldiers waiting for our attack thrown into disarray from the sparks floating down at them, our pack surged through the embers of the ruined gate. With powerful strides and leaps to carry us to the enemy, we were on top of them or behind them in mere moments.
The living fire knew who its friends were, curiously floating harmlessly past dog and man alike, while stinging enemy soldiers. It wasn’t even a fair fight. It was butchery.
When we’d cleared the space between the walls and the palace, we continued forward, picking up the pace as we neared our goal. Dogs and boys turned less than human by their changes were leaping over the smaller set of walls that blocked off the courtyard. I took Nokomi in my arms and jumped over the wall, following Dog’s lead.
More soldiers came pouring into those long gardens, the same courtyard where I’d been reunited with Nokomi upon returning to the city. It was a strange homecoming, this time with fire and death instead of joy. But the death brought a different, thrilling sort of joy to Dog and I: the thrill of the hunt. We were hunting down our enemies, our rivals.
Dogs and men launched themselves at the soldiers that burst from between the pillars of the palace. These were Navid’s heavy guards, the best-trained soldiers in his army. They looked like beetles in their dark armor, but it they thought to stop us here, after all we’d gone through to get this far, they didn’t know us.
Dog and I fell upon them like scythes through fields of ripe grains. We reveled in the terror that filled our nostrils. The blood of seasoned soldiers fell thick before our claws, and their flesh parted almost happily beneath our teeth. No sword, steel, armor, or weapon could halt our advance, but there were many soldiers. Our advance was not without cost.
A determined knot of defenders slowly gave ground as we broke into the halls of the palace itself, leaving behind the night air. The cool night was battling with the heat of Nokomi’s fire and losing, just as surely as Navid’s defenders were failing.
I roared and threw myself into the knot of defenders. My landing killed one, whose spine snapped beneath my sudden weight. Dog crashed beside me, and we tore at the soft innards of men from within their own ranks. We found their vital organs, even through their boiled leather and ring mail armor.
I punched one so hard that his helmet folded over on his skull, crushing his head like a ripened melon. Dog’s claws cut through men like scissors, and his maw found openings in armor and shields that ended lives. The two of us stood in a pile of gore, the center of calm in a sea of controlled chaos.
An archer down the hallway tried to put an arrow in my chest, but we batted it aside. When we barked at him, he fled, and the path was clear to the audience room.
Dog and I shook, and blood sheeted off of us as if we’d just taken a bath. Nokomi came to stand beside us, jaw clenched as she tried to ignore the carnage. These men were doing their duty, but so were we.
Nokomi’s hand gleamed as if she wore a glove of fire, and her eyes had a hard set about them. “We’re almost there. Let us finish this.”
I led our company onward until we reached the audience chamber. The last time I’d been here, Emperor Baraz and Kalb had been alive. I halted outside, giving a sniff. I could smell Navid beyond those enameled double doors.
“He’s in there.” I announced, earning a round of growls and snarls from my companions.
“Open it.” Nokomi ordered, drawing herself up in readiness for the fight to come.
I reached out to open the doors. This time there would be no doorman announcing our arrival. This time, fire and death heralded our presence. Navid would have to answer for his crimes.
Messages and preparations had come and gone, and the time for action was upon us. The Lord of the Vultures had gathered his soldiers and had moved to harass Navid’s forces at each entry to the city. They had split into several companies, each of which was turning back merchants who tried to reach the city, choking it slowly. Those who were leaving were allowed to pass, but none were being allowed entry.
It was an unofficial siege, but that wasn’t the point of the Empress’ plan. The forces outside the city could no more take the city than they could starve out the city. It was all a ploy to draw out Navid’s armies, taunting them to force him to acknowledge what was happening.
After weeks of hunting for the escaped members of the royal family, here they were, presenting themselves to him if Navid dared to come out and meet them in battle. Of course, he didn’t come out himself. Instead, he sent out his regiments of soldiers on patrols, but they had little luck finding Tiny’s soldiers. The Lord of Vultures had trained his men well. They knew when to hide, how to vanish, and how to avoid larger forces when they needed to. They were naturals at it, and with the help of Nasha’s falcon, Zephyr, they were all but untraceable.
I watched through a spyglass as yet another of Navid’s patrols went out, knowing that the enemy they sought would melt into the wind like a handful of dust. Short of a horse trampling one the hidden soldiers accidentally, they would not find a single man.
Nasha stood beside me, her eyes focused afar, likely on the same things I was watching with the spyglass. With Zephyr aloft, her farsight was incredibly detailed. She claimed to be able to count flies on a dead animal’s corpse at a distance of a thousand paces. I suspected that she was not exaggerating in the least.
Nokomi watched Kalb’s daughter with morbid interest. She still found the girl strange and a bit scary, but Nasha had that effect on people. Mostly, it was those piercing eyes, and she had more than a little bit of her father’s intimidating presence. He had been known to quiet an entire room with nothing more than a glance, and I had no doubt that she would be his equal someday.
Still, Nokomi had accepted Nasha’s service gratefully, on the condition that she would be free to seek her own fortunes after Navid was dead. That part of the agreement had been added at my suggestion, but Nokomi had not argued it one bit. Perhaps, being another young woman, she understood the need to not be tied to something forever, at least not because of the a parent’s wishes.
“Movement.” Nasha announced, swiveling her head toward the northern city gates.
When the gates opened minutes later, an entire column of soldiers emerged, a larger force than we’d yet seen. The city was not being emptied of its defenses by any means, but it was as close to emptying it as we’d likely get. I looked then to Empress Anahita, who nodded to me. It was as she’d planned. After enough time, Navid would have to send a significant portion of his forces out to deal with the insurgents. This was our chance.
The Empress walked over to us, flanked by Halina, who wore leather armor, a helm, and carried a pair of long knives, one sheathed on each hip. The Empress was similarly geared for battle, but she carried a shield and a spear instead.
The Empress looked to Nokomi, smiled broadly, and threw her arms around her. “We will see each other again, daughter. Go get our family’s kingdom back.”
“I will, mother. Be careful. Let Halina guard your back. She saved me back in the palace, and I know she can do the same for you.” Nokomi said, pulling away reluctantly. She wiped a tear and bit her lip to stop her chin from quivering.
Halina gave Nokomi a fierce hug next, eyeing me over her shoulder, as if to dare me to not protect her with my life. “May your aim be true, Princess. Come back to us after you have taken your revenge. If we don’t meet you in the city after disposing this rabble ourselves.”
Nokomi choked out a laugh while crying in honest now. “May the Gods watch you and keep you safe, Halina. Remember, you don’t have to win out here. Just stay alive.”
Halina and the Empress walked back to where their mounts were being held by Barid and Jahan. They had earned the honor of escorting the two ladies, this far at least. The rest of Adish’s family had stayed back at the camp. Sherine was looking after Shapur for the Empress, as well as her own two younger children. If things went poorly today, Barid and Jahan were to ride back to them and flee the kingdom. Had they meant to join the battle, I doubted that Jahan would have been allowed to come this far.
Barid exchanged some words with Halina, who smiled and offered him a kiss on the cheek before he helped her onto her mount. Jahan said some words of encouragement to the Empress, then blushed and looked at the ground while she mounted. Nokomi grinned at the scene, and I found myself doing the same.
With the Empress mounted up, she started out across the sand to where the rest of her soldiers waited. Tiny’s army had not been the sum of the allies she’d been able to gather. Baraz and Anahita had been beloved by many in the kingdom, and several great houses had pledged many swords to her cause, if not nearly as many as Navid could muster. We also knew that some families would hedge their bets by sending support to both sides. Still, the Empress didn’t have to win outside the city walls, not with what we had planned.
When the Empress had gone and the dust of her force’s passing had drawn the attention of Navid’s army, I looked to Nokomi and Nasha, nodding. “It’s time.”
We hurried down the slope of the dune we had been perched upon to where Scar waited with the force of Old Blood soldiers he’d managed to gather. There were easily thirty of them, and I found several familiar faces among them. It heartened me to go into battle with old friends beside me.
I saw Face, whose dog’s large face was marked with more wrinkles than any other dog I’d even met. He was a solid man, and his dog easily outweighed me. Hair was also there, another boy from the Kennel who’d since grown into a man. His flowing locks were nearly as impressive as his dog’s long, beautiful coat. I saw the fleet-footed Sleek, the second fastest dog and man I’d known, second only to Legs, whose sacrifice still stung my heart. Then there was Mongrel, who, along with his mutt, was not particularly amazing at anything, but excelled at everything. I knew he’d be one of the last to fall if things went the wrong way.
Of the others, many I knew from my time in the army and training at the other schools. The rest I had at least met when they’d gathered at the Kennel. Scar and I had gone over the plan together with them, and they were all in this with me, but they also knew that we were but a small part of the Emperor’s Dogs. Most of what remained of the Emperor’s secret army was inside the city, and they all served the current Emperor, as they had been trained. Like Sardar’s pack, most of the Dogs had followed the throne, not their hearts.
Dog stood at attention beside me, as I looked over the small force. “This is our time.” I told them all. “This is not a time for man or beast, but for something in-between. We alone can serve the Emperor’s memory by returning the throne to its rightful owners.”
“For Princess Nokomi!” Scar shouted.
“For Empress Anahita!” Another shouted.
“Down with the false Emperor!” Someone cried, and this became the battle cry that they all took up.
Nokomi nodded at me and mounted her pony eagerly, with eyes flashing and ready to see justice done. Like her mother and Halina, she was ready for battle. She wore her hair tied back and out of the way, a quilted shirt with leather panels, and her father’s reforged knife at her side.
Her pony was well-chosen, as unshakeable as it was fast. Otherwise, all the barking and howling of dogs would have unnerved the poor animal. That pony kept its cool, even as most of us gave parts of our bodies over to our animal sides, taking on the strength and speed of the dogs that would be at our sides when we entered the city.
Our pack ran as only we could, or so we thought…
Nasha ran beside us, her light footsteps hardly marring the sand upon which she tread. As if lighter than air, she floated from step to step, keeping pace with the dogs as they ran. I could have stood and watched her run, but there was no time for such things.
We stayed in the troughs between dunes and hills, using natural cover where we could. Dusk would be shortly upon us, but we were not waiting for the shadows of night. The Empress might not have that long, though she hoped to use the darkness to escape if she needed to. And, we already knew Navid’s Wolves would find us. We counted on it.
We approached the city on the western side where there was the least amount of city between us and the palace. We didn’t want to have to work our way through half a city of buildings and crisscrossing avenues and open ourselves up to attack from soldiers stationed within the city. No, we wanted a direct and simple route.
When we neared the walls, guards began to take notice of us. Nasha warned us to watch for arrows, but a lucky arrow felled one of ours, injuring his leg too greatly for him to continue one. He snarled and apologized, but other dogs and their companions had already topped the walls and cleared out any further resistance.
“Your fight is over for today. Live to fight again tomorrow.” I said as I knelt beside the wounded soldier. “Get to safety with your dog.”
He growled but did as told, and then the rest of us climbed the walls. Nokomi left her pony then, clinging to my back as I scaled the wall. Her heart hammered against my back, and I grinned, feeling the thrill of the hunt as well. My part would come soon, very soon, if my ears told the truth of it.
When we had all cleared the walls and had moved into the cover of alleys nearby, Nasha’s head cocked to the side and her eyes went out of focus, as if she were not using them.
“Dogs. More of them. Wolf heads on their shoulders.” She pointed in several directions, and then her eyes came back into focus.
“Get Zephyr back here, so he doesn’t take a stray arrow.” I ordered. “They may know to look for him.”
Nasha nodded and went to the edge of the alleyway, where she held out her arm. The bird alighted on her falconer’s glove moments later, arriving almost noiselessly, except for when he opened his wings at the last moment to slow his approach. She grinned at me in the fading light. Her eyes went golden. She was showing off.
I looked to Dog, then. “It’s going to be you and I, here.”
Nokomi’s hand gripped my arm tightly. “Are you sure about this?” Her fingertips traced the scars at the corners of my mouth, where my last great change had ripped my skin as I’d become more dog than human.
I nodded. “I must do this, Nokomi. We can’t fight our way past all of his soldiers, let alone these creatures...”
She bowed her head, putting it on my shoulder for a brief moment of comfort amidst all of the anxiety, a moment that was shattered by a howl from down the street. That howl was taken up by another, and soon the whole area was erupting in bestial howls.
“Steady…” Scar murmured to the other soldiers. His own dog waited, bared white teeth shining against his dark coat, legs tensed and ready to spring.
It was a good thing, as a scraping on the roof above us became a dog-like creature hurtling down upon us. Scar tackled the beast as it landed, going after it with his dog at his side. More attackers burst into the alley, and we quickly found ourselves in a snarling pile of limbs and teeth.
Dog and I pummeled one when it got too close to Nokomi, and I saw that she was poised with a knife over her hand. I shook my head at her. “Not yet. You have to save your heartfire for Navid.”
Together, Dog and I fell upon another enemy, scraping and snapping at each other. Mongrel hit the thing from its flank, piling on top of it to seek its throat. Relieved of a foe, I looked to my fellows and shouted more orders.
“Fight out into the street! Make some noise! Draw them all in!” I pushed past them to the center of the street.
Shadows multiplied in the street, becoming dozens of other beasts and men as we battled. Wounded howls and shrieks filled my ears. I saw some of my allies fall, but still we battled on, becoming a knot of fighting around Nasha, whose talon-like fingers were as fast as they were sharp, and Nokomi, who was ever poised to draw her blood to help us, but trusted me enough to hold off.
Then there was a deep bark from down the street, and the fighting lessened. Their dogs and soldiers fell back, surrounding us, but not engaging. They’d left about half of our force standing, with several others crawling to join us, even if they were clearly not going to be able to continue their fight.
Several of my companions were dead in the street, dogs and boys alike. Somehow, they always managed to die near their partners, boys and dogs never far apart, even in death. The sheer waste of talent, of ability, of life… it galled me. It burned at my soul.
With the taste of someone else’s blood on my mouth, I let loose a howl of rage and challenge. Dog snarled one of his own.
“I knew you would come.” Sardar called out to me, stepping past the front lines of his superior force.
My pack flowed to my sides, letting me past them. I spared Nokomi one last glance and stepped forward to meet him.
I looked at the row of faces arrayed against me, dogs and men alike. “You all serve a false emperor, a murderous traitor. Turn and help your Empress regain her rightful place, in the name of Emperor Baraz’s son and true heir, Shapur.”
Sardar shook his head. “Your Empress cannot win. She is as outnumbered outside the walls as you are inside! This beaten force of yours here cannot stand. You have already lost. We will take the princess back as captive, and the Empress’ son will live in exile or be hunted to the ends of the world.”
As he spoke, our enemies drew forward, encouraged by Sardar’s words. Dog growled and stood beside me, refusing to give ground, no matter how close the enemy crept.
“You tried, Go, but you have failed. Surrender now, before any more of those with you have to suffer. They fought and did their duties, as they thought they should. We cannot fault them for their misplaced loyalties, and they will be granted clemency if you surrender.” Sardar tried to appeal to their senses, but dogs are beasts of passion, not sense.
“All or nothing!” Scar shouted in challenge, his scarred face twisting into an angry sneer. He looked at me with hope, and I knew I could not let them down.
“Emperor Navid!” The enemy called back, taunting us with their greater numbers.
“You asked for this…” I warned Sardar.
Sardar shook his head. “We’ve all seen or heard what you can do, Go. Becoming a beast will not let you prevail, not against these numbers. Even the strongest elephant can be pulled down by a pack of lions…”
“But I am not an elephant, and you are not the lions in this story.” I replied.
He may have been the original recruit at the Kennel, the one with the most experience, but he was not the one with the greatest ability. If I’d learned anything from the story of Kalb’s sacrifice, it was that there was always another step farther you could take things, if you were willing to try.
I gave myself over completely, not to the beast within me, but to Dog. And he gave himself to me, heart and mind. The two of us twisted and changed. He became me, and I became him.
My face and body contorted with the changes that pained me to my very core. My legs cracked and my joints changed. My jaws elongated, and my ears stretched skyward. Coarse hair sprouted across my body as my muscles reshaped to fit the new bone structures of something between man and beast.
The beast had been a powerful but nearly mindless creature filled with rage. I was not becoming a mindless beast. I was taking the form of a beast with the mind of a man, and Dog was doing the same beside me. Despite all of the pain, the knowledge that Dog was beside me, fighting the same changes, made it possible. I heard Nokomi cry out, and that was balm to our shared soul, but it could not change what we’d done.
When I looked up with my new eyes, and I saw my enemies looking back at me in an array of fear, fear I saw in shades stripped of most color. I had done something they dared not do. Dog and I had become the same. I glanced to my side, seeing Dog staring back at me with the same face I now wore, only dappled with patches as his face had been as a Dog.
Dog had become half man, and I had become half dog. We were something not Dog or Go, but the best of both.
With an ear-shattering roar more befitting a bear than a dog, we stepped forward on our strange feet, human-like with the claws of a beast.
Sardar regarded us with something between horror and fascination. He stood stock still as we charged, unwilling to challenge what we’d become. Dog and I snapped our jaws in front of his face, snarling and fully willing to rip his face to pieces, even if he didn’t fight back.
One of Navid’s Wolves jumped at my flank, but I turned and tore him to pieces with claws that would have made a lion jealous. Dog kept his jaws at the ready right in front of Sardar, ready to end him without a moment’s hesitation.
“Your emperor is false…” I growled, not recognizing my own voice, mixed as it was with Dog’s. We acted and spoke as one.
Sardar knelt before me then, averting his eyes and going low. His dog hid its tail and rolled belly up. I growled at them, and they flinched away, expecting death but not finding it.
Dog and I let loose another ear-splitting howl.
The larger share of those present, other men and dogs that had been part of the Emperor’s Dogs, froze. Slowly, they all showed ways to demonstrate their submission, by lying down, going belly up, averting their eyes, or whimpering.
The only ones that did not want to give any sign of giving up were the ones who had never served with us, the ones recruited by Navid himself. His wolves would never submit. I could smell it on them, see it in their body language.
“His wolves are false.” Dog and I proclaimed, effectively ordering their deaths.
It was not pretty, seeing dogs turn on each other, but all of those who had served with me before were now mine. By submitting, they had chosen me as their new pack leader. They would not serve Navid again, not while I lived.
Outnumbering Navid’s Wolves some three to one, my dogs slaughtered the wolves in the streets. It became an utter rout, and the streets ran with the blood of man and canine. Dog and I savagely defended our own, killing any of Navid’s creatures that strayed within our range. Scar and Mongrel were a wind of death just beyond my reach, finishing those that dared not challenge me.
When it was over, I looked back to Nokomi and Nasha. Nasha regarded us as we knew she would, with her head tilted and her too-large eyes fixated upon us. It was Nokomi that mattered, and it did not please us to see her watch us with a pained look on her face. She’d known that this wouldn’t be a bloodless effort. She’d even prepared herself to kill her own uncle, but this was more than she’d ever imagined she’d have to witness.
“Go…” She said softly, but I heard it, the pain of loss in her voice. She feared she’d lost us forever.
I reached out through our bond and gave her reassurance. We may have changed, but Dog and I were both still here. Her expression eased a bit, but still looked as one might look upon watching a loved one hurt and suffering.
I didn’t know if there was any going back from what we’d done, but I knew our work wasn’t done. There was still hunting to do, and we could not rest until Navid was dead.
“All or nothing!” Came the cries from the Emperor’s Dogs… no… the Princess’ Dogs now.
I could smell it on them, their need to please me to please her. I didn’t dwell on what that might mean. Instead, I used it. I let them ride their emotions like a wave, using them as a smith might use a hammer, and what a hammer they made!
We charged through the streets, killing our way to the palace. Nokomi followed in our wake, a cupped ball of fire ready on her palm and her father’s reforged knife in her hand, begging for her uncle’s blood.
Nasha and her falcon continued to study us as we approached. She seemed to sense our intent, for she turned and started up the hillside to get some privacy while we spoke. Atop the hill, she turned back toward me once more, giving me another of those looks like I was a meal about to be enjoyed.
Her expressions were quite similar to those of her falcon, which turned its head so it could watch us with one of its eyes. Looking more closely at her, I saw that she resembled her bonded animal quite closely, especially in the eyes. Even her features were sharp, with an aquiline nose that was a bit too strong for her face.
She looked me over as I had her, and I wondered how much Dog and I resembled each other in her eyes. Did we have many of the same mannerisms? Dog and I looked at one another, and his tongue lolled out. I certainly didn’t do that.
“Can you tell me of your father?” I asked her when we had finished taking a measure of each other.
“My father often spoke to me of you.”
“He did? I am sorry that he never mentioned you.” I regretted saying it, but dogs have an abrupt and honest manner about things.
She shook her head, unoffended by my remark. “He wanted to keep me a secret. Only the Empress knew of my existence, but she only knew that he had a daughter. He never told her about my abilities. He feared that if the Emperor knew of my abilities, he’d call me into his service. After serving for as long as he did, my father had no need for money, and only wished for me to be free.”
“I am sorry that I could not save him. I was there that day. He fell protecting the Emperor, but I had to save the others in the royal family. It was my duty.”
She blinked slowly and deliberately. “I know. He told me when he gave me the sword.”
I wasn’t even sure how to respond to that. Dog settled in at my feet, sitting on his haunches and staring at the falcon. The bird cocked his head to regard Dog.
I watched the bird for a moment, then decided to risk a question that might have been rude. “Is it strange having a bird, rather than a dog?”
“Is it strange having a dog rather than a bird?” She countered, smiling slightly. “If anything, Zephyr’s maleness is stranger to me than the fact that he is a bird.”
It must be very interesting. A bird’s thoughts and views of the world must be vastly different from ours. “I’ve heard of others of the Old Blood being bonded with a horse or a fox, but never a bird.”
“Birds are not dogs. Father found it hard to relate to me.” She admitted.
“He was not a man that many felt close to, except perhaps the Emperor.” I offered.
“The Emperor knew him better than any of us.” She agreed, but she did not seem sad about it. She must have come to terms with it some time ago.
“But your father’s death? How did he pass in the end? I would have thought that the explosion would have killed him. How is it that he was able to survive to give you the weapon?”
“Teeth sheltered my father with his heavy body, shielding him from most of the blast.” Nasha turned away, so I could not see the complex emotions that crossed her face. She took a deep breath before continuing with a shaky voice, “Before he died, Teeth let his spirit go, entering my father. He was badly wounded, but for a brief moment, they were two creatures in one body, and that was enough for him to escape.”
I stared at her in surprise. Dog barked, as if he, too, could not believe what he was hearing. “He could do that? That’s possible?”
She shook her head. “Not really, not for long. It was a desperate thing, a last breath of life to pass his final words on to me. Teeth’s body was burnt beyond recognition, but even that massive dog hadn’t been able to cover him completely. My father was burned badly, barely alive.”
I shook my head, disliking this story. It was worse than I’d expected. Burns were bad, and losing your dog was even worse. Teeth’s noble sacrifice brought a lump to my throat.
When I said nothing, she continued. “That home that you saw when you escaped the palace through the tunnels was mine. Father fled there, taking what was left of the Emperor’s sword with him. He told me to find you, to help you and the Princess, to serve you two as he had served the Emperor in his life. My father died in my arms, burnt and completely spent for this kingdom. Even his last words were in service to the Emperor and his family.”
She bowed her head then, finally done. Her shoulders bowed under the weight of a lifetime of prospective service. I would’ve reached out to her, to offer her comfort, but I sensed that this was something she did not need, not from me. She was not Nokomi, and I didn’t know how to relieve her burden, except to tell her what I knew.
“The Princess would never hold you to that. You needn’t give your entire life for this. She would not take something not freely given.”
“I must.” She said. “This is my father’s dying wish.”
“Damn his wishes!” I shouted, startling her and her bird. “He can’t tell you what to do from beyond the grave any more than he can tell me what to do now.”
“I can’t…” She hesitated.
“You can.” I insisted. “Your only duty is to your pack.”
She shook her head. “I’m not a dog, Go. I don’t have a pack like you.”
I shrugged. It didn’t matter what she called it, she had one, even if she didn’t know it yet. “Then call it your flock, your family, or whatever you want. You must seek out those who complete you, and you must fight for them. Let no one else turn you away from that.”
“And the princess, is she part of your pack?” Nasha studied me carefully.
“Nokomi?” I smiled. “She is my pack, along with Dog. They are all that matter. I may love and help some of these others, but there are none I put before them.”
Dog barked in agreement. She smiled down at him.
“A pack… a flock of my own. I would like that.”
“Seek them out.” I suggested.
She looked at me, a resolute, confident look in her eyes. I realized in that moment that she was actually younger than she looked. Beyond that, she had likely not seen much of the world beyond that small estate that Kalb had left for her. She had been sheltered and left in a peaceful hideout from the world, a place where concerns could not touch her – until now.
“I believe I shall.” She announced. “But first, I would like to honor my father’s wish and see Princess Nokomi safely back home.”
“Nokomi will gladly accept your help. I’m sure of it. Zephyr might prove a valuable asset. And when it’s all done, you must look for those who offer you a complete life, the other parts of your pack.”
“Flock.” She corrected, smiling.
I didn’t argue that. Instead, we took in the breeze and the view around us in silence, absorbing details in ways that only our kind could appreciate.
As it turned out, the existence of Kalb’s daughter was a mystery to all of us, save for the Empress, but even she hadn’t known that Nasha was one of the Old Blood. With Kalb’s considerable abilities, it shouldn’t have been a complete surprise, but I’d never heard of someone of the Old Blood with a bond to a bird. I had a thousand questions, but many were likely not polite to ask, especially in mixed company, just as she would not likely question what I felt with Dog or how our connection went.
After her arrival, I hurriedly introduced Nasha to Tiny, who was livid that his defenses had been circumvented so easily. He predictably demanded to know her secrets, which she explained off as an advantage of having a falcon’s eyesight and ability to scout from the air. As was understandable, his men hadn’t expected a bird to be part of an incursion into their territory. I don’t know how complete her account was, but it was entirely possible that she had other abilities she kept to herself.
With Tiny somewhat mollified, we left Nasha with Tiny for further details, while Nokomi and I went to show the hunk of melted metal to Adish and Barid, so we could see what could be done with it. We found them at the rebuilt forge, discussing techniques with the local smith, whose talents were modest at best from the looks of it. Yet the man was willing to learn, which was a good sign. Barid had already showed the man how to use cheaper metals with lower melting points to mend and weld broken tools and pots back together as a cheaper and easier fix. A place such as this required every bit of use they could get out of things that were not easily replaced, which was just about everything.
Nokomi and I stepped up to the shaded area around the forge, where a canopy had been strung between three trees, keeping the direct sunlight off of the metalworkers. It was hot enough without having the sun beating down on you also. Adish stepped forward to greet us with a smile, leaving Barid to offer more advice to the young man working over the anvil with tongs and a hammer.
“Princess,” Adish bowed, “and Go, what can I do for you? You look like people about a purpose today.”
“What do you make of this, Master Adish? Can it be saved?” Nokomi handed him the remains of her father’s sword.
Adish turned the twisted, melted mass over in his hands, looking grave. Truthfully, much of the blade had warped and melted, the hilt’s crossguards were fused into the lump of the hilt, the leather hilt wrappings completely burned away, and any decorations melted beyond recognition. Had we not been told what it was, I doubt any of us would have known its true origins.
“There is little here left to save.” Adish declared after examining it thoroughly. “What type of sword was it?”
“It was my father’s. He had it with him when he died.” Nokomi replied.
Adish started to stammer a reply, but closed his mouth. He bowed again. “I’m sorry, Princess.”
She nodded, clenching her jaw. “Thank you.”
Adish passing the weapon to Barid, who was curious about the lump of metal. Upon looking at it, he assumed a similarly grim expression. “This is a tortured piece of metal. It must have been exposed to extreme heat. Nothing short of a complete reworking will do.” Barid offered it back to Nokomi.
“Can you not rework the blade and save some part of the hilt?” Nokomi asked hopefully. “I would prefer to have something of my father’s old weapon in my hands when I use it to put an end to my uncle.” She said simply, meeting Barid’s eyes as she said it, as if it were nothing out of the ordinary to ask him to make a tool for killing a family member with.
Barid looked from the princess to me, uncomfortable with the idea of murder. I offered him no reassurance. She was being honest about her intent. There was no hiding what she planned to do with it.
“Can you do it?” I asked.
Adish sucked at his cheek and thought for a moment. “The hilt could be filed down and reworked. It will take some work to get the full tang of the blade into what’s left. The blade is worthless, except to melt down and recast. We certainly can’t fold the metal with the equipment we have here. It will be nothing near the same quality as it was.”
“All of that reworking will reduce the amount of usable metal.” Barid commented. “Anything made from what we have here would be much smaller. Considering what we have available to work with, I’d guess we might be able to make a long knife at best, and, as Adish said, it will be nothing near the quality your father’s blade would have been.”
Adish nodded in agreement at that prognosis. “It is melted slag, to be honest. It would be faster to melt it down and start afresh, but I understand your sentimental attachment to your father’s weapon. I truly wish we could offer more.”
Nokomi nodded. She was clearly not happy about it, but at least it was not a complete loss. She thought for a moment. Then she produced a medallion from within her dress. I helped her unhook the chain and lift it free of her shoulders.
She held it out to the two smiths. We all took a look at what she held, a flame worked in gold with rubies and polished jet set around it. “Can you work this into the pommel? It is from my father, and I want as much of him in the knife as possible.”
Barid took the medallion gently with his two hands. “The chain as well? We can wrap it around the hilt like wire.”
“Please.” Nokomi said softly. It was clear that she was hesitant to part with the keepsake, but she would still have it in the blade.
“We will need time, several days at least.” Barid said, looking to Adish, who nodded in agreement.
“I’m going to need Jahan to make a lot more charcoal.” Adish observed.
“Please let me know when it is done, master smiths.” Nokomi curtsied and left the small forge.
Dog and I fell in beside her, noticing Nasha watching us from across the camp. Her yellow eyes were startlingly when she fixed you in her gaze, piercing even. My step faltered, and Nokomi followed my gaze to where Nasha stood. I stared back, caught in her gaze. Was this one of her powers?
“Go talk to her if you find her so interesting.” Nokomi suggested bitterly. “You two probably have a lot in common.”
I frowned at her, Dog whining beside me. He didn’t like hearing that either. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“She’s beautiful, strong, intense, and she has the Old Blood in her. You were both raised by Kalb…” Nokomi sighed and crossed her arms in front of her.
She shrugged and looked away, refusing to meet my eyes, because I might see the tears forming in the corners of her eyes or feel the trickle of one already running down her cheek. I felt it anyway through our bond.
“Just go.” She said softly.
This wasn’t entirely about Nasha, I realized. It was about her father’s sword, the medallion, her uncle, and everything. I couldn’t walk away. “No.”
She turned to me, giving me an imperious look. “I order you.”
I stared right back at her and shook my head. “No.” Dog whined again, agreeing with me.
She huffed and started to stalk off in the direction of the tent she’d been sharing with her mother and Halina. I caught her by the elbow and turned her back to face me.
“I will go talk to her, Nokomi, but only because I need to learn more about Kalb. I want to know about how he died, because I wasn’t there when he died, and I regret that, even if I needed to save you.”
Her eyes narrowed angrily. “Then you blame me for not being there?”
“Of course not…” She was being ridiculous. “You are my pack, and I will always fight to save you before I try to help someone else. You are more important than anyone else.”
“Except for Dog?” She asked.
“That goes without saying.” I said with a smile.
She pouted a frown, but did not argue that point. She looked over at Nasha, who still watched us with her eerie eyes. “It might be a fair match, you two.”
“Bijan might be a fair match for you, Princess. He’s handsome, well-mannered, and rich. Do you intend to marry him when we return to the palace?” I asked. I meant it somewhat as a joke, but I felt a cold grasp of fear on my heart as I waited for her to answer.
“Bijan is the last thing on my mind right now.” She said quickly. Then she shot me a look. “Nasha is pretty, though. She’s tall and very graceful-looking.”
I wasn’t going to take that bait. Not a chance. “If you like that sort of a thing, but she is not the sort of woman that I am interested in.”
Now Barid and Jahan, they might have another opinion in the matter, especially since the princess was a bit unapproachable, unattainable. I’d never had that feeling with Nokomi. She’d belonged to me as much as I’d belonged to her since the day we’d met.
“If she is not to your liking, what is it you’re looking for then?” Nokomi asked innocently, the beginnings of a smirk on her face.
“About chin height.” I held up my hand to indicate her exact height. “Dark haired. Irresistible eyes. Dangerous, more so when she doesn’t get her way.”
She broke into a grin at that description. “That could be ay of a thousand girls across the kingdom.”
“Oh, but I like a specific one with a scar on her hand and fire in her veins.” I replied, reaching for her hands.
“Getting a little more specific.” She whispered, taking both of my hands.
“I like what’s right before me. I’m not looking for anything or anyone else. You’re my ‘all or nothing.’”
“What’s that?” She quirked an eyebrow at me.
“Our pack, back at the Kennel. We had this thing we said as Pack Sefr when we all joined together: ‘All or nothing.’ It meant that we were all in it together and completely, or we meant nothing.” I felt foolish explaining it, but it felt right.
She nodded, and a slight smile came to her face. She tugged on my hands, pulling me over to her. “If that is the way of the pack, I can live with that.”
“So what will it be then? All or nothing?”
She made me wait before answering, enjoying every painful moment I waited. “I’ll take it all.”
I put my arms around her and kissed her deeply. When we parted, I felt a calmness in our bond, contentedness that hadn’t been there a few minutes ago. She slowly pulled herself away from me and took a step toward her tent.
“Go talk to Kalb’s daughter. I’ll be here when you’re doing talking.” She walked off through the sand, glancing back at me once before she pulled aside the flap to her tent and vanished inside.
I stared at the tent for a long moment, before realizing that Nasha was still watching me, observing. For that matter, Barid and Adish had been as well, though they both made a show of being very busy when I looked their way. Snorting a laugh, Dog and I went to go speak to Nasha.
Tiny’s humble home turned out to be a tent city contained within a small depression that surrounded the entrance to a shallow cave that served as Tiny’s treasury and home. Dozens of tents in a rainbow of colors, mostly faded from the harsh sun, were gathered on either side of a narrow path that led right up to the cave.
Tallow candles on stolen candelabras lit the cave, which was deep enough to shelter everyone in case of a sandstorm, if not the animals. Within the cave were disorderly piles of supplies and random treasures in a mismatch of crates, barrels, and bags. Most of the collection was mundane, but a few items were actually quite extravagant. Tiny and his settlement lived a life of relative comfort with what they’d found, captured, and scavenged.
He’d explained many of these riches initially as plunder from his raids, but we’d since come to understand his business model, which was to work as an escort for merchants who couldn’t afford their own troops of guards as they crossed the deserts on the trade roads to neighboring cities and kingdoms. They also preyed upon the bandits that plied the roads, attacking only those who attacked and stole from the innocent.
Tiny’s code of honor as the Lord of the Vultures had earned him a pass from the Emperor. They’d actually met once or twice, to my surprise. He had full license to continue what he was doing, proven by a writ issued by the Emperor himself, which Tiny kept carefully stored in a scroll case at the back of his cave.
There were several other such encampments within a few days’ journey of the capitol, we’d learned. All told, he could call several hundred scavengers and warriors to his side, which was not a large army, but it was a force to be reckoned with if used properly. Securing the rest of the army we needed to retake the palace would likely fall on me.
Our entourage had fallen into an easy routine since arriving. The Empress took at least one meal every day with Lord Zamir, as she insisted upon calling him, so they could get a further measure of each other and hash out the details of recompense for his assistance in the days to come. Nokomi and Halina joined them more often than not. Together, they dictated notes, which were tied to the ankles of the desert birds that Tiny used to keep in touch with the other camps.
Sherine had quickly become something of a camp mother. Having raised three children on her own, as well as having been something of a foster mother to less-fortunate neighborhood children such as I had been, she’d quickly set about mending garments, making poultices for scrapes, and doing any number of other motherly kindnesses. Her youngest two stayed at her side, when they weren’t playing with the dozen or so camp children. There were few women in the camp, and this was not a place designed for raising children, and the other mothers greatly appreciated Sherine’s efforts. Even the women from the palace pitched in where they could, proving that they were not too good for any sort of menial labor given them.
Adish and Barid had found a simple forge in the camp. Working together, they’d gathered and stacked rocks to improve the furnace structure, and then they’d improved the bellows with what materials they’d found. Then they’d set Jahan to gathering wood for making charcoal, as much as they could make. It burned hotter than the dried discs of camel dung they frequently used for fuel. Apparently, there was no need to worry about anyone seeing smoke this far out from the city. Even if someone did see it, they were not likely to investigate, and Tiny’s army of followers was quite capable of dissuading anything short of a large army from approaching too near their camp.
When we were not catching up with Tiny or attending strategic planning meetings, Dog and I spent our hours patrolling. Tiny and I had little enough to say to each other. Unlike the pleasant reminiscing I’d done with Legs weeks back, Tiny had few memories of his days at the Kennel worth remembering, and I was a reminder of everything wrong that had happened to him there. We gave each other space, though we were polite and friendly when we were together around others.
Patrolling was our duty, or so Dog and I told ourselves, but the truth was things were changing for us. After being away from the city for even a few days, it quickly became apparent that we were meant to be around less people. We might have fit in well enough in the army or in the Emperor’s service, but that was not how we wanted to live. Whether there were a few of Tiny’s scouts with us or not, it was far more peaceful in the desert than in the noisy encampment, although we could not help but wish to have Nokomi beside us.
She must have felt the pull to be together also, for she managed to sneak away from her duties to her family within the camp at least once a day. Drawing on our bond, she was easily able to find us, no matter where we were sitting and staring at the desert.
Nokomi seemed to sense our dislike of the crowds, but she didn’t understand the reasons behind it. “You are spending a lot of time alone, staring out at these changeless lands.”
She sat with Dog between us. Our hands reached over Dog, resting on his back, so we could feel each other’s hand and the reassurance that simple touch gave.
“These lands always change, but the changes are subtle. The way the dunes and hills look today will not be the same tomorrow.” I replied as my fingertips explored the lines of her fingers.
“No matter how the hills change shape, they are still just piles of sand.” She replied.
I laughed at that. She was right, even if she missed the point. “It’s still different.”
“And what of us?”
I looked over at her, squinting to avoid the sun over her shoulder. “What of us?”
“What changes are there in store for us? How are we different from day to day?”
“I live and die for you, Nokomi, the same as ever. If I can regain your home for you and the throne for your brother, then that is well. I just want to be beside you.”
She studied my face for a long moment, trying to hear what was implied but not said. “But you would rather we didn’t go back?”
“You and Neema are both behind Shapur in the line for the throne, despite his age. You have the least claim on the throne, so you have the least reason to return. Yet you belong with your family, and I can’t fault you for going with them.” I said softly.
“And you? Where do you belong?” She asked.
I didn’t even need to think before answering. “With you. Always with you, Nokomi.”
Her hand tightened on mine at my answer. “Where could we go, if we left right now?”
I shook my head. “I own nothing. We would live as fugitives in your own kingdom, as paupers in a neighboring land, or as the Lord of Vultures does, a brigand and sell-sword in the desert. Those are no life for you.”
“Do you understand why I have to go back, Go? And don’t tell me that it is for my position in line for the crown or because my family is going back.”
“You’re going back for revenge.” I answered. Dog looked up at us, whining.
She moved her hand away from mine to offer Dog a comforting scratch between the ears. “You killed the boy who murdered Tiny’s dog, right?”
“Drum. Yes, I ripped his throat out with my own bare hands… my claws. Your father watched and approved.”
“But you put him down for your own reasons, and you would have whether my father allowed it or not.”
“Yes.” I admitted.
“Then you know what I must do to my uncle. It is not for my brother, my mother, or even my sister to do. It is for me. I know I was not supposed to know that father loved me most, but I felt it. That is why it is for me to finish this. I will feel his throat under my own hands.” Her angry eyes were blazing, though they glittered with unshed tears.
“And I will be there to help you get to his throat, Nokomi.” I promised her. “Only, I don’t know where we go after that, the two of us.”
“Let us worry about after when we have reached it, Go. Have you not tried to show me before how dogs live in the present? How they worry about what they can do in the moment, not what is coming on the morrow?”
I nodded, smiling to hear my words given back to me. “And what can we do in the moment?”
She leaned over Dog, who grunted at suddenly being used as a cushion for her elbow. “You can come over here.” She whispered, closing her eyes.
I smiled and put my hand against her cheek, guiding her lips to mine. Dog squirmed to get out from under us, but we ignored him, even when he slipped free of us and stood at attention, looking back in the direction of the camp.
After a sharp bark, I reluctantly pulled away from Nokomi, whose face was so close to mine that I just wanted to stare at it forever, memorizing every last detail, every last eyelash, and every line of her soft lips. Dog wasn’t in the mood to let us be, not with someone approaching. I could hear the soft footfalls on the sand, and I expected it was Jahan, Barid, or even Halina, except that this one smelled different.
I turned and saw a young woman standing several paces away. Curiously, she had a bird resting on her shoulder. She was of an age with Nokomi and I, perhaps a year or two older at most. Her hair fell dark down to her shoulders, her full lips were pursed, and her sharp eyes flashed yellow. In front of her, she carried a twisted piece of metal that I almost recognized.
“Captain Goren? Princess Nokomi?” The girl asked, her voice lilting and high.
“Yes?” Nokomi and I echoed each other, staring at the girl.
The girl quickly dropped to one knee, and the bird on her shoulder flapped its wings and dug into the shoulder pad sewn onto her tunic. While kneeling, she held out two gloved hands and offered up the piece of twisted metal she’d brought with her. “I present you the sword of Emperor Baraz.”
Nokomi stood with surprising speed, hurrying to the girl. She dropped to her knees and reached to receive the ruined weapon. The girl almost lifted her eyes then, but kept her gaze down, even as she was relieved of her burden.
“Who are you?” I asked, but one look at her eyes and I knew. “Those eyes. You are Kalb’s… daughter?”
Nokomi turned to stare at me in surprise. “Kalb has a daughter?”
But once said, the resemblance was impossible to ignore. The girl came to stand once more, dusting off her knee. “He was my father, yes. His dying wish was for me to deliver this sword to Princess Nokomi and then assist Captain Goren in helping the princess achieve her revenge.”
“I will kill my uncle with this very weapon.” Nokomi declared, turning the twisted hunk of metal over in her hands.
“Well, maybe not that exact weapon, but it so happens that Adish is an accomplished smith.” I commented. You couldn’t even cut meat with what was left of the blade. It was a twisted lump of steel.
Dog gave a short bark, and the falcon’s head swiveled his direction. It readjusted its grip on the girl’s shoulder, walking in place and opening its mouth as if to cry out. Dog couldn’t take his eyes off the bird, but made no move to bother it. Something in the falcon’s expression suggested that it would be foolish to attempt anything.
“Then you will accept my service, Princess?” The girl asked. Like the bird, she had a defiant and powerful gaze, as if begging the princess to deny her, just so she could do what she wanted anyway.
Nokomi regarded her, probably wondering why this girl was pledging to her instead of her mother, the Empress. “If I am to accept your service, then I will need a name to call you by, daughter of Kalb…”
“Nasha. My father named my Nasha.” The girl replied, and like that, Nokomi had found herself another soldier in her war against her uncle.
The better question was how she’d found us and how she’d managed to evade Tiny’s soldiers. Apparently, Tiny was thinking the same thing, if the yelling from down in the tent city was any indication.
National Novel Writing Month 2019: The Emperor's Dogs