We threw the doors open with a resounding crash.
Navid stood at the end of the room, standing in front of the throne he’d stolen from his brother. He had an ugly sneer on his face, as if he’d never been so inconvenienced as he was in this moment. After all, we’d ruined all of his plans, and he couldn’t believe we’d gotten this far.
Nokomi strode into the room, ignoring her uncle for the girl in chains upon the chair beside him. It was Nokomi’s older sister, Neema. Her fiancée, Dastan, stood behind her, his hands resting on her shoulders. It was not an affectionate pose. He was there to hold her down.
Along the sides of the room were dozens of soldiers in black armor. Some carried spears, others swords, and a few had crossbows. This was Navid’s kill room. He hadn’t thought we’d make it this far, but he’d been prepared just in case.
Dog sniffed the air, and we smelled irritation, but not fear, at least not from Navid. Neema stunk of despair. The man she’d pledged to marry her had betrayed her, put her in chains, and now served the uncle who’d killed her father. Her eyes were puffy with tears and her lip was split.
“Neema!” Nokomi shouted.
Navid’s lips curled into a smile. “Nokomi! What a pleasant reunion.”
Nokomi clenched her fist around the hilt of her knife. “You’ll pay for this!”
“Will I?” Navid suggested haughtily. “You are greatly outnumbered.”
“Maybe you don’t know how to count.” I suggested. Two or three to one was still fair odds for a force such as ours. I flashed a sharp-toothed grin and yellow-eyed stare at him.
Navid stared at me flatly, taking measure of me and finding me unworthy of notice. “Look at these beasts you travel with, niece.” He frowned in disgust. “It’s appalling. Why don’t you come down here and surrender. Then we can put your rabid pack of puppies down?”
A round of growls and barks quieted him for a moment, if only. Soldiers nervously shifted their stances and their grips on their weapons. Let them sweat, I thought, because nervous soldiers make mistakes, and we were spoiling for a fight. I could feel it in the air, the desire to draw blood. But then I heard movement in the hallways. There were more soldiers coming. He was stalling.
Navid continued once more, hand on his hip and other palm raised as he offered with feigned magnanimousness, “If you let me kill you, maybe your fate won’t be so bad as your sister’s. I can’t promise it. I might go easily on you and make sure you don’t suffer. You’ve caused me far too much pain to live.”
Hearing that, Neema surged against her chains, but Dastan pushed her back down into her seat. As I looked more closely, I realized that she’d been carefully restrained so she couldn’t draw any of her own blood. Even her manacles were padded and lined, so she couldn’t scrape herself on them. Still, she struggled, trying to scream, but a wad of cloth crammed in her mouth and tied around her face made it impossible to even bite her own tongue. What use was heartfire if you couldn’t bleed?
I turned to Mongrel, who still had the bow with him, as well as a handful arrows. “Shoot Princess Neema in the shoulder or the leg with an arrow.”
It was only a whisper, but I saw Nokomi stiffen beside me. She hated what I’d just suggested, but did not stop it from happening. She knew why I wanted her sister bleeding. It was the only way to give her sister a fighting chance.
Mongrel drew an arrow from the quiver on his back and made ready to fire, but Navid’s soldiers closed ranks and covered the front of the room with enough shields to make hitting Neema highly unlikely. I held up my hand to stay his attack. There were not enough arrows left to waste one like this.
“You cannot win, little niece!” Navid taunted. “Your mother is busy dying outside the walls, and you have chosen to die here. None will be left to oppose my rule.”
Nokomi turned to me, her eyes desperately begging for advice. “What do I do?” She whispered.
I held out my clawed hand for her to take. She took it, though I could sense her discomfort at what my hand had become to help her seek her revenge. She knew what I’d given up for her. “We don’t have a choice. We can’t stop here, no matter the cost.” How well I knew the cost…
“Neema might die.” Nokomi had already lost her father and didn’t want to have to bury a sister.
“She would rather die than be a prisoner here.” I answered softly. Dog growled in agreement, eyeing the enemies on the other side of the room.
“Enough talk!” Navid called out, disliking the quiet conversation. “Kill them all and be done with it!”
His soldiers lurched forward to fight at his command. Crossbows twanged as bolts were released to the tune of Neema’s wordless screams from beneath her muzzle.
Nokomi looked sadly at me as she fought the inevitable deaths that had been coming since her father’s betrayal. Her knife sang free of its sheathe, scoring along her forearm and releasing a spray of blood that spread before us like a shield. Her blood burst into flames, turning the crossbow bolts into cinders as they crossed through it.
“Take them apart, dogs!” I bellowed, leading the way.
Dog howled beside me and the pack surged forward like a wave. We hit the soldiers like a hammer upon an anvil. Bones and metal crunched together, and bodies went flying. Scar darted past me, his black dog flashing like inky death through enemy ranks. Dogs howled in excitement and yelped in pain. Men screamed in agony and exultation. This was true battle, all or nothing. Pack Sefr had one more fight in them.
Mongrel stayed near Nokomi, guarding her as well as my back with an arrow at the ready. He put an arrow through the visor of a soldier’s helmet and drew another of his dwindling supply of arrows. I nodded my thanks to him and then smashed my way through another enemy.
My plan to shoot Neema was still in play, but we had to clear a path. Nokomi’s blood-covered arm was outlined in fire, her flesh on fire without being burnt. If Neema’s heartfire didn’t end this, Nokomi’s would.
“Follow me!” I cried, cutting my way through the lines to where Navid waited with a sword drawn.
Dog and I made an impressive wedge, forcing men aside with hammer strikes of our fists and feet. The stink of sweat, blood, and growing fear only served to encourage our ferocity. My claws and teeth scored metal and flesh alike.
When we’d nearly reached the steps, Navid raised his hands and shot a gout of flame at us. Nokomi cried out in warning, throwing herself between us and the fire. The blast caught her across the back, spilling over her shoulder. She grimaced in pain as her cloak caught fire and her hair was singed. She threw the cloak aside, letting it burn on the floor. Then she cast a ball of fire back at her uncle, but a soldier in black armor did for the general what she’d just done for us, intercepting the attack with his own body. He collapsed in a smoldering pile of metal and blackened skin.
Navid lifted his blade then toward Neema’s face. Try as she might, she could not reach the blade with any part of her skin, not with Dastan holding her back, though he strained to do so. His handsome face looked ugly in the heat of battle, and I hated the man for what he was doing to Neema. Neema tried her hardest to draw her own blood, but she could not reach the blade. Tears and sweat dripped down her face, and her eyes bulged from her efforts.
“Neema!” Nokomi cried, throwing another blast of fire, this time at Dastan.
Navid threw his own fire at Nokomi’s, deflecting it away from both Dastan and Neema. The combined fire hit a pillar along the side of the room, sizzling at is ate into the stone.
Dastan went white, looking at the stone that might have just as easily been him. His face flashed with anger, realizing he might well have just died. He drew his hand back and slapped Neema across the face. Her head rocked against the side of the chair, and she slumped down.
“Bastard!” Nokomi growled, beginning to draw more heartfire into her hands.
“I’ll kill you for that.” Mongrel promised, trying to get a clear shot on Neema’s fiancée.
Dog and I were doing our best to keep soldiers back from Nokomi, but we were outnumbered in here, despite doing our best to even the score. Navid was helping his own soldiers by casting fire at our pack, burning both dogs and men alive. Our two forces were so closely entangled that there was no way to only hit our forces without hurting some of his own men, but he didn’t even care if he killed some of his own men, just so long as some of us died.
If we didn’t strike soon, we’d lose. All we’d done would be for nothing.
“Mongrel!” I shouted. “Hit Navid!”
Mongrel snapped off a shot with his bow, but it didn’t have the power he needed behind it, not with such a hurried effort. Navid batted the arrow aside with his sword, laughing as he effortlessly defended himself.
“You’ll have to do better than that!” Navid called down the steps at us.
I smiled. I planned on it. “Again! Left side!”
Navid scowled as Mongrel nocked another arrow and fired. The second arrow was sent astray just as the first had been, but in doing so, Navid’s steps had carried him right in front of Neema.
Dog had been watching Neema closely, and what he saw I also knew. Dog knew that Dastan’s strike had opened up a gash on Neema’s forehead where her face had struck the side of the chair. She wasn’t so stunned as she’d played to be. Instead, she’d hidden her face and waited for the blood to bead up. With her uncle right in front of her, she drew her will into that rivulet of blood and flicked it at him with a sudden jerk of her face.
Navid turned in surprise as Neema’s heartfire scored him across the back like the strike of a fiery whip. Normal fire might not hurt one of the royal family, but heartfire knew friend from foe. Navid let out a cry of pain and turned to stab her with his sword, but that was all the opening Nokomi needed. She threw all of her will into her ball of fire and threw it at his open back.
Once more, a soldier tried to get between her attack and Navid, but Dog pulled him down, ripping his legs out from under him. Nokomi’s aim was true, and the white ball of light burned like the noon sun as it hit Navid square in the back, burning its way through his spine as it burrowed into him.
Navid sagged to the floor, nerveless and dead from the waist down. His sword clattered to the floor and he cried out in agony. Blood and spit bubbled at his mouth and he clawed at the carpeted floor, gasping in pain. His mouth worked like a fish out of water, filling with wordless cries of pain. I doubted he was able to do much more than feel his nerves being seared from the inside out.
At the fall of their master, many of the soldiers backed away from us, dropped their weapons, or backed away from the fight, disengaging when they could. My allies had their blood up though, and many would not stop fighting so easily. I gave a bark, calling them off. Even then, some wanted to press the attack. I let them as they wished, though I had no desire to see any more blood today, save for one man’s.
“Mongrel?” I asked.
“Go?” He turned to me.
“Kill Dastan.” I nodded toward Neema’s traitorous fiancée.
Dastan opened his mouth to protest, but took an arrow in the back of the throat. He crumpled to the floor, dying painfully. I nodded approval to Mongrel, who nodded back.
The dogs surrounded us then, gathering in a circle to watch over Nokomi as she went up the steps and knelt beside her uncle. She crouched triumphantly over his prone form.
“You stupid, stupid man.” She shook her head. “You could have sat at the right hand of greatness, but your greed got the better of you. For what? How many people had to die for your pride?”
Navid shook his head, struggling to breath, but he managed a few words. “What would a girl… who consorts… with animals… know of pride?” He spat out.
Nokomi looked up at me, she looked at Dog, and then she looked around at those who had fought bravely to get her this far. She must have liked what she saw. “They may look like beasts, but they have more honor in them than you, a man of my own family.”
“Time to die, uncle.” She spat on her uncle then and put her knife over his chest. “Remember that traitors don’t reach the afterlife.”
“Emperors do.” Navid glared at her defiantly.
“You were never really the Emperor.” She growled, pushing her knife into her uncle’s chest, sinking it all the way to the floor. “Die, pretender!”
Then, so he couldn’t use his dying blood to kill us all, she crisscrossed her palm with a fresh cut, drawing a fistful of blood that she pressed on his forehead. Her glowing hand melted through his face like candlewax.
With Navid’s ruined body stretched out before us, Dog threw back his head and howled. I joined him. Soon, the others were howling too. Even, I noticed, Nokomi, whose eyes flashed yellow as she joined in.
Her throat produced the most marvelous howl I’d ever heard. I watched her in awe, marveling at her teeth, suddenly sharper than I remembered, and her claw-like fingertips. She was perfect. More than perfect.
It seemed the bond of heartfire and Old Blood went both ways.
Death was familiar to me. Birth, not so much. What did I know of such things?
I knew how to guard, to hunt, and to protect. That was what I had been trained for. It was what my orders required of me. Since the day I’d foiled the assassination attempt on princess Neema, I’d been a constant fixture in the royal residence, a shadow haunting the halls with Dog at my side. We’d had no specific directions other than to be alert and on watch for similar attempts. They’d trusted us to uncover any further attacks in whatever form they might take.
So it was that we were stalking the halls of the ground floor of the residence when we felt an undercurrent of excitement running through the royal. Servants were rushing about, chattering about something. Their was an infectiousness about their excitement, and I found that Dog and I were getting carried away with their emotions.
As we eavesdropped to figure out what was going on, Princess Neema came to find us. She swept into the room, all long-legged grace and seriousness in a long dress that dragged the floor in her wake. Her straight hair fell in a curtain around her face, and her eyes were alert, full of excitement.
“Captain Goren!” She called over, placing one hand on her hip while the other fell at her side. She almost looked at ease around us, but Dog and I could see the way her fingertips tugged nervously at the fabric of her dress.
“Princess.” I stepped over to her and bowed slightly, keeping my eyes on her. “There is quite a disturbance this morning…”
“The baby is coming!” She said, grinning widely.
“Your mother is?”
She nodded excitedly. “It’s finally time.”
That made sense. It certainly explained much of the talk I was hearing. “What would you have of me? How might I help?”
“You’re not a midwife are you?” She asked suddenly.
I shook my head, frowning. “No.”
She laughed. “Captain Goren, there is nothing you can do for my mother. The baby will come without any help from you or I.”
“I know that.” I said softly. I hadn’t meant to imply that I would deliver the child myself, obviously. I waited for her to say more.
“You can wait on the second floor. Father wants you watching the stairwells in case there is another attempt while he is occupied with the arrival of his child.”
“Good. I can do that.” I preferred to be kept busy anyhow.
“Come with me then.” She turned on her heel, she strode off toward where I knew the stairs to be.
I watched her body language as she strode purposefully across the residence. She was making a strong attempt to look confident, but there was a tenseness in her stride that showed how little she liked having a creature like me at her back, where she couldn’t see me.
Dog and I sped up, putting ourselves beside her, if a half-step behind on account of her higher status. “You have nothing to fear from us.” I whispered to her, just loud enough to be heard.
Her step faltered, and then she stopped. Her hand drifted to her face, pulling a lock of hair away from her cheek. Then she took a breath and turned toward us. “I know that you think that.”
Dog shifted at my feet, staring up at her. “There is no think about it, princess. It is the truth.” I said firmly.
Her sharp eyes searched our face for any hint of falsehood. There were no lies in us, not about this, so she found nothing. There was a slight shift in her expression, that of acceptance. “I know that you saved us the other day, but your presence here is something that is blended with lies, lies about who and what you are and why you are here.”
“I have done nothing but the duties your father and mother have asked of me.” I replied.
“Nokomi trusts you implicitly, my father believes in your abilities to keep us safe, and my mother has also asked you to watch over us. I am thankful for that, but we are not friends, Captain Goren, and my trust is something given slowly, something to be earned.”
I smiled toothily. “I understand completely, princess.”
“Furthermore,” she continued, “I believe that you are a dangerous person. Like an unsheathed blade, you are something to be watched and handled with care. I fear that I will never be completely at ease around one such as you.”
Dog let out a whine at hearing this description of us. His tongue lolled out and he moved to press his muzzle against the princess’ hand.
Frowning at the two of us, she pulled her hand back. Then she eyed Dog. “Your innocent act does not fool me, Dog. You are every bit as dangerous as he is, perhaps more.” She nodded toward me and gave me a flash of her eyes.
I found myself appreciating her forwardness. She had the family’s strength in her character, and I liked it. Dog whined and tried a second time to press a nose to her hand. “Stop, Dog. You’re embarrassing yourself.”
The princess snorted at that, and, as if to prove me wrong, she gave Dog the smallest and most chaste pat on the top of the head I’d ever seen. Dog gave a little growl and nosed at her hand for more, and she obliged, cracking the slightest of smiles.
“I don’t even like dogs.” She declared, giving Dog one last scratch on the jaw before drawing her hand back at last.
“It appears that way.” I agreed, doing my best not to smile.
“Come on then.” The princess ordered, heading once more for the stairs.
I followed behind her, observing the change in architecture and design as we arrived on the second floor. The ground floor was very open, with many pillars supporting the upper floors of the residence, and wide expanses of floor between them. Certainly, there were meeting rooms and chambers along the periphery of the ground floor, but the general feel of the ground floor was one of openness. In contrast, the second floor was more closed down, more intimate feeling, even if the ceilings grew taller as we exited the grand staircase. I stood at the top for a moment, looking this way and that, trying to get a mental picture of the layout.
“This is your first time upstairs, I take it?” Neema asked.
I shook my head. “Second.”
She stared at me in surprise. She’d noticed my unfamiliarity with this part of the residence. “Then why?”
I leaned in conspiratorially and smiled. “Last time I came in through your sister’s balcony, but I never made it out of her room.”
She stared at me wide-eyed, blushing fiercely. “That is most improprietous.”
I shrugged, wondering what she thought of her sister’s dealings with me now. “Don’t worry. We only talked. Then Dog and I left. Besides, Halina wouldn’t have let anything happen.”
“Oh.” She went silent, frowning.
Dog made a noise that got Neema moving once more. She cast a sideways glance at us more than once as we walked. I smiled to myself and looked around as we went.
Gold gilt had been worked into the pillars that held up this floor of the residence, worked into veins that shimmered in the marble. A major hallway crossed from the stairwell to another directly opposite, more than a good stone’s throw away. A similar, perpendicular hallway crossed directly through the middle, making a full X across the entire floor that effectively divided the second floor into quadrants.
Carpeted runners in a deep red ran up and down several of the smaller, side hallways, offering quieter passage to the chambers that were most likely occupied by the royal family and their closest servants. Up and down the halls, I could see guards stationed at regular intervals, and a bevy of servants hurried back and forth with both speed and quietness.
My nose was hit with a tang of sweat, pain, and exertion. There was a hint of blood in the air, too, and the odd scent of the Empress’ birth water. I’d been around the births of horses and dogs, so I knew what it was, but this was the first time I’d been so close to a human birth.
“She’s close.” I said, gauging how close the child was by the muffled cries from a nearby room.
Neema gave me another look. She wasn’t used to someone with such sharp senses, and it was disquieting for her to be witness to my abilities. She might understand what I was, but she would likely never be fully comfortable with me.
“This way.” She said, tearing her eyes away from me.
She hurried now, heading down a side hallway near the intersection of the two major hallways. I followed easily, Dog trotting alongside me. It was there that we came upon Princess Nokomi waiting outside a set of doors with her father and General Navid.
I almost growled upon seeing the general here, but no matter my opinion of the man, he was still part of the royal family. He appeared to be waiting with the Emperor to congratulate him on the newest addition of the family. There was almost a brotherly air between the two, but there was a cloud of tension hanging over that affection nonetheless.
Nokomi’s eyes lifted to meet mine, and she broke into a smile. She stood to greet me warmly, “Captain Goren! We all feel safer with you here.”
She all but glided across the floor to my side. As always, she was a vision. Her hair was coiffed elegantly, gathered to one side. Her dress was brilliant teal, with a white ribbon wrapped multiple times around her middle, accentuating her small waist.
Dog’s tail thumped happily at her greeting. “Princess Nokomi.” I bowed politely.
I carefully watched Navid’s reaction. The man observed with a surprisingly neutral expression. This was a man who could hide his thoughts very well, if he cared to. He met my gaze with a knowing look, as if he understood everything he needed to about me now.
Had Nokomi’s familiar greeting given him some hint to our ties? Did he know about that? Or had Dog’s happiness at seeing Nokomi betrayed our closeness? Would he use that against us? I couldn’t be sure.
Nokomi turned to her sister. “The baby is near. Mother wanted us both to go in to help her.”
“Then we must not keep her waiting. Let us go greet our sibling.” Princess Neema inclined her head slightly to me. “Captain.”
“Princess.” I bowed again.
“Could you keep my uncle and my father company while we wait, Captain Goren?” Nokomi asked, smiling in a way that would have lit up anyone’s day.
“Certainly.” I grinned back at her.
She winked and took her older sister’s hand, moving toward the doors to the Empress’ chambers. They knocked twice, and a woman in nurse’s garb, complete with a bonnet and an apron, opened the door. They whispered among themselves and then the princesses were let in. The nurse cast a suspicious gaze at the men in the hall, and then closed the door. A cry from the inner rooms punctuated the door closing.
“The mysteries of women.” Navid said with a chuckle, trying to add some levity.
Emperor Baraz smiled politely, but did not laugh. His mind was clearly on his wife’s ordeal, and he waited with clenched fists and a tight jaw. He met my eyes, as if wondering if I knew what he was going through.
I could not, of course, know what it felt like to be him, having no children of my own. I knew the anxiousness that sat on one’s mind and heart before a mission. I’d passed many sleepless nights before ordering friends and companions to their deaths on raids we’d been ordered to carry out. There was an inevitability and helplessness to that, which I felt related to what the Emperor might be feeling.
There was nothing he could do to ease his wife’s pain. She simply had to endure this, pushing until it passed. But the Empress was a strong woman, a mother to two strong-willed daughters already, and I knew she would make it through this.
I wondered how it would be for the Emperor to have a son after so long. And I wondered how Navid would feel to be put one more step away from the throne on account of a crying babe. I found myself getting more tense.
“Emperor, I thought I might walk the halls once?” I suggested. After all, it was what I’d been asked here for, even if it seemed as though he really just wanted another witness to keep his brother on his best behavior.
I was surprised that Kalb was not here. Then again, despite their close ties, he was not family. Not that I was, but Kalb was also open about his distrust of Navid.
The Emperor nodded, waving his hand to dismiss me to do that. His jaw clenched tighter as another cry came from the chambers within, the agonies of birth carrying through the walls.
I took off to patrol those main halls with Dog at my heels. I hadn’t realized how fast I was moving until I passed a group of maidservants going the same way as me. They were carrying steaming water and fresh linens, clearly heading toward the Empress’ birthing suite. Dog and I slowed down, gave them a passing sniff, and headed to what we figured to be the back wall of the birthing suite after making a sweep of the halls.
Through the walls, I could hear the Empress’ cries as she pushed. It went on for some time, her agonized cries and the tired exhaustion she pushed through until her child came into the world. It took some time, but I could hear the sobs of relief from the tired mother and the mewling cries of the newborn.
I took that as a sign and rushed back down toward where the Emperor and his brother waited, pausing only to check the halls once more on my way. I found a nurse greeting the Emperor with the news as I approached.
Nokomi came out of the room then. There was a sheen of perspiration on her face. From the expression on her face, I knew that she’d found it difficult to watch someone she loved in pain, especially when she knew that one day she would face the same. Still, there was a glow about her face, for she’d just basked in the presence of her newborn sibling.
Dog and I walked up to deliver our report. “Sir, everything looks clear. Congratulations are in order, I understand.”
The Emperor nodded and made a decision. I could see it in his eyes. “Captain. Would you accompany us inside?”
Navid’s eyebrow rose, and he gave his brother a questioning look. “Brother?”
The Emperor smiled. “You have to meet the newest member of the family you are sworn to protect.”
“It would be a great honor, Sir.” I lowered my eyes and put my arms at my side, where Dog sat patiently.
“Come then, Captain.” He waved me along, pushing me into the room ahead of himself.
The nurse protested. “You can’t bring an animal in here!”
The Emperor barked a laugh. “I trust that Dog every bit as much as you, woman. That ‘animal’ saved the princess’ life the other day.”
“Sire.” The nurse bowed her head and backed away, ashamed that she had raised her voice in the presence of the Emperor.
Dog and I entered the outer sitting room, which was filled with servants bundling up bloodied linens and carrying away tubs of water that had been used in the birthing and the cleanup afterward.
We let the Emperor and his brother pass us then. It was only fitting that they go into the birthing room first. Nokomi fell in beside us. It was good to have her at our side as we entered the presence of the Empress, now a three-time mother.
The Empress was arrayed on a large round bed, surrounded in white silks. Her face was flushed with exhaustion and effort. Her sweaty hair clung to her neck and forehead, but she glowed with new motherhood. Her clothes had been changed, so she was now swathed in glowing white that reminded me of Nokomi’s outfit the first day I’d met her years ago.
A small, pink babe was clutched against her chest. Its dark hair was plastered to its head, still wet from birthing and the gentle bathing it’d had after its birth. It was tiny and helpless looking, but it glowed with an inner fire that pulsed with each strong heartbeat.
“Emperor, my husband, meet your new son.” The Empress announced proudly. She had eyes only for Baraz.
The Emperor swept to her side, kneeling beside her on the bed to reach out for his child. The Empress pulled the babe from her breast, though he protested angrily at being removed from the comfort of his mother and feeding. As she handed the baby over to his father, the Empress covered herself quickly.
Emperor Baraz stared at his child, a worshipful look filling his face. The baby cried out, opening his eyes just long enough for us to see the fire glowing inside them.
“My son.” The Emperor said joyously, holding him up for us all to see. “He shall be known as Shapur, the first of his name.”
“Shapur.” The family echoed, even Navid, whose expression was carefully guarded.
Nokomi’s hand clutched at mine as we watched the Emperor climb into the bed beside his wife. Together, they held the baby that would take the throne one day, if only he lived long enough.
I changed clothes while I waited. The others smelled too much of beasts. I didn’t mind it, but the musk of the beast set many people ill at ease. So, I put on my cleanest military uniform, complete with all of its symbols of rank. There was no point trying to hide what I was any more. If I stood before the leaders of our people, it would be as the soldier they’d trained me to be.
Kalb arrived to escort me personally to the audience. Teeth was beside him, as always, but there was something different in the way the two of them carried themselves, as if they were distancing themselves from me. This was official business, and any familiarity we might have shared was gone, for the moment at least.
We walked in silence to the same audience chamber that General Navid had been welcomed in. Before we entered, Kalb turned his cloudy yellow eyes to me and said only one thing, “Be true to yourself and honest. I can say no more.”
I nodded, and waited for the doorman inside to call for me. Dog and I walked forward, entering through the enameled double doors that stood before us. We were announced as we proceeded into the room.
“Captain Goren and his dog.” A voice called out.
I grunted and turned to the man, who was surprised by the sudden attention. I looked him up and down, noting his careful manner and stylish dress that were vastly different from my own. “He’s not ‘my dog.’ His name is ‘Dog.’”
“Uhh, yes. Captain Goren and Dog?” The man announced carefully.
I nodded, and then approached the front of the room, stopping at a respectful distance, about ten paces and three steps away from the Emperor and his advisors.
Kalb’s expression was unimpressed, but the Emperor seemed to understand the distinction I’d just demanded. Names and labels were important. The Empress was strangely absent, with General Navid taking her place at the left of the Emperor to balance out Kalb. Navid had traded his armor for more fitting and official garb. He was far more richly appointed than the Emperor, although he did not wear a crown, as his brother did.
“Revisit the details of the assassination attempt. Spare no detail.” The Emperor commanded. His eyes were flinty, and his body was a study of contained fury.
“Sir.” I bowed respectfully before beginning. “I was observing the interactions of the princesses with their suitors, as I have been commanded to do. I was performing my guard duties as expected, when Dog and I determined that one of the servers was not who he pretended to be.”
“What does that mean? How did you realize what his intents were or that he was not what he appeared to be?” Navid interrupted.
I noticed that he made no attempt to explain away the situation as a mistake. There was no talk of me attacking an innocent man, so at least we were all in agreement there.
“I smelled the poison on the food he was trying to serve princess Neema. I imagine that the tart berries would have hidden the flavor until it was too late.” I answered.
“You smelled the poison. Is this a normal part of your duties? Aside from being a captain in our armies, are you also a wine taster and food sniffer?” Navid laughed, but quieted when Baraz swung his gaze in his direction.
“Captain Goren is known for his abilities.” Kalb remarked.
“Oh? Which abilities? I’m just now getting to know the man, though he has appeared several times around the palace. It makes me wonder what all his duties are…”
The implication that I had spied on him was clear. I made no effort to hide what I’d done. Dog sniffed at my side, and I did the same. “You had cumin, garlic, and paprika on your lamb today, sir. You washed it down with red wine. You were served by a young woman wearing jasmine perfume. There is an awful lot of it on your neck and left shoulder, so I imagine that she sat beside you while you ate. And did she shovel your food into your mouth with a flat of bread cooked in oil?”
Navid stared at me, his mouth twisting into a frown. Kalb grinned.
“Enough. We understand just how acute your sense of smell is. Now get on with the details. Tell me of the assassin.” Emperor Baraz ordered.
I inclined my head once more and continued with my recollection. “There were two servers, and while they both wore the same clothing and generally looked similar, one went without gloves. It was a small detail that tipped us off, that with the smell of poison.”
“How well can you smell poisons?” Navid asked.
“Well enough. At least with those I’m familiar with.” I admitted.
“And how many are you familiar with?” The Emperor asked.
“Twenty to thirty types? Some were employed in missions along the borders, used in softening up forces or eliminating specific insurgents or key persons.” I answered.
Navid stared at me with newfound interest. “Aside from the gloves and smells, how did you know?”
I shook my head, unable to fully explain, but I did my best. It was in the details, the miniscule differences. “It was in his eagerness to get the princess to eat what he carried…”
The Emperor sat forward. “How so?”
“It is difficult to put in words, but I will try.” I glanced at Dog, who seemed to nod at me. “In the same way that I can tell if a man is being genuine to a woman, or if he is being polite because he must, or if he has more lust-driven motives, I could tell that this man had different motives for his actions. It was in the way he carried himself, the way he moved, the tone of his voice, the way his pupils contracted, and the excited smell upon his skin. It all combined to create a picture of one intending harm and delighting in doing it.”
“And what of these wounds upon the man?” Navid inquired. “He was hardly fit to speak by the time we gathered him up for questioning. It looked as if he’d been savaged by wild animals.”
I met the general’s gaze, letting my eyes go yellow. “I am what I am, and he deserved every wound on his body, more even. He did not need his arms to tell you his secrets.” I smiled toothily, and Dog stood at attention beside me, the hair on his back rising.
The general knew exactly what I was, and there was no sense hiding it any longer, not if he’d already started gathering more of my kind to his side. Let him know that at least two dogs guarded the royal family.
The Emperor’s fist banged on the arm of his throne then. He gritted his teeth and glared at Kalb, though it was not his fault. It was the anger of a man whose family had just been attacked, and he knew there was nothing he could have done about it. What I’d just described was beyond his ability to sense.
“They came after my daughter, Kalb. Always, they came for me before, but now the rules have changed, and they think to go after my daughters.”
“I know, Sire.” Kalb bowed his head.
The Emperor thrust himself up out of his chair, startling Navid beside him. The Emperor staggered down the few steps that held his chair, coming down to a level with me. He had a crazed look in his eyes, a look that promised he was going to do something uncharacteristic of him.
I wanted to take a step back, but I did not. I remained standing as he came forward and threw himself at my feet and wept. These were tears of anger, frustration, and relief. I looked over at Kalb, who looked away uncomfortably, and then at Navid, who stared at this momentary show of weakness with utter fascination.
“You have saved the life of my daughter. I am deeply in your debt.” The Emperor said, head bowed.
“You owe me nothing.” I responded quickly. “Neema is important to Nokomi.”
“You have no idea, Go.” The Emperor said, catching his breath and gritting his teeth.
I sank down to kneel in front of him. “I think I do. I understand the need to protect one’s pack.”
The Emperor reached out and clasped me about the shoulders, nodding. “You know then, but how I wish I could have been be there to rip the man to pieces, to tear him limb from limb.”
“I understand that desire, too. That was how I felt with Tiny. Someone had hurt one of mine, and that was why it had to be me to kill Drum. You afforded me that privilege, and I have not forgotten that, sir. That is why you owe me nothing.”
The Emperor smiled at that. “Know that we will find the source of these attacks, Go, and you will be there to watch me strike them down this time. I am not one to forgive such an attack. Not ever.”
“Brother, it occurs to me that this may be the beginning of Arven’s retribution. Have I erred so badly in judging them? Would they seek the death of an Emperor’s daughter as a trade-off for a few foot soldiers in a port city?” Navid wondered aloud.
“This is not the way of the Kingdom of Arven. It is not the sort of reprisal they would’ve chosen. They are merchants, not murderers.” Kalb protested.
Navid shook his head. “What are assassins but merchants of death? Does it not fit? Is the timing not curious?”
“No more curious than the timing of your arrival.” Kalb muttered.
Navid stood abruptly, reaching for his ceremonial sword. “What are you implying, Minister?”
Teeth stood up, growling at the general and looking every bit of his size. Kalb put a restraining hand on Teeth’s shoulder. “Was it unclear?”
“Choose your next words carefully, Minister. I am brother to the Emperor. You are merely a friend of the court that walks around with a big dog.” Navid scoffed, letting an inch of his sword slide from the scabbard.
“Teeth is a very big dog, and I wonder if your brother might find it worth the risk if there is even a small chance that the attacks on his family stopped. Would you risk that?” Kalb grinned toothily, and Teeth growled a bit louder.
The Emperor watched my face as I observed the exchange. I suddenly suspected that this was playing out as he’d planned it. I also realized that Kalb had just painted a much larger target on himself than he’d had before if the one behind these attacks truly was General Navid.
“Peace.” The Emperor said, but it was enough.
The Emperor looked at both of them, allowing no more words to pass between the two as he retook his place on the center chair. Navid’s sword settled back into its scabbard, though his hateful looks did not vanish. Kalb looked as if he’d come out ahead in the exchange, and Teeth sat back on his haunches, staring at the general.
“We will recall more of our dogs back to the city.” The Emperor announced. “We will hunt these assassins in their nests. They will not be spared.”
“As you wish.” Kalb bowed.
“And the Kingdom of Arven?” Navid asked.
“I will deal with them directly. Preparations will be made.” The Emperor replied coolly.
It wasn’t certain whether he believed that the Kingdom of Arven had any hand in the attack or not, but he was not one to let things go unsettled. Strangely, the smell coming off of General Navid was also one of satisfaction.
I was dismissed shortly after, sent back to my quarters until my orders arrived.
If I thought that those moments with Nokomi would quickly lead to more, I was wrong. At least, there were no more invitations during the rest of the week or the next, not even over the weekends. Perhaps my novelty had worn off? I’d seen Halina once or twice, possibly following me, but she maintained her distance, and I was careful to give no indication that I knew she was following me.
Instead, Dog and I worked the palace grounds, sometimes as a soldier with a dog, other times as a scribe without. Dog made it harder to go unnoticed, so we practiced separation, with him hiding where he could, sitting in wait in an empty room or an unoccupied corner of this garden or that one. Even with some separation, we could still feel one another, and my more acute senses did not fade as long as I kept some part of my mind focused on our bond. Even if we had been separated by enough distance to affect our bond, my senses and reflexes were still far beyond those of a normal human.
We worked and learned until the weekend, which brought to mind the market days from my childhood, when I’d worked for Adish. He’d given me my week’s pay on the sixth day of the week, allowing me to spend my money as I pleased on the end days of the week, days seven and eight. I’d learned the value of money, ate some delicious grilled rat, and explored the shops with Dog.
How I longed to go back into the city and wander the labyrinth of tents, booths, and stalls. It was a simple pleasure to wander among so many sights, sounds and smells. There was some small, mundane version of the market put on in the palace courtyard for the sake of the officials and palace staff who could not bother to go to the markets or the Grand Bazaar, but it was such a pale imitation that I cared little to explore it, except to study the people, and even that I cared little for.
Instead, Dog and I spent our second weekend reporting our findings to Kalb, who similarly shunned such gatherings, even more so as he aged. I returned to his offices, as before, and we spoke at length.
“I understand you took tea with the princess the week past.” Kalb remarked casually, but there was more than a hint of accusation in his tone.
I shrugged. That was not something I would deny, especially when he already knew the truth. “I will not refuse a summons.”
“Nor should you.” Kalb agreed, but he still eyed me with suspicion.
I smiled affably and took a direct tactic. “What is it that you really want to say, Kalb?”
“I understand the allure she must hold for you. You are bonded, and you are both so young and idealistic… and she is beautiful.” He watched me for a reaction.
I said nothing, allowing him to continue.
Kalb frowned at me, and Teeth shifted uneasily, feeling Kalb’s discomfort at the subject being discussed. “You do realize she is meant for another, right?”
“Yes. It has been explained to me at least twice.”
“And that means that no matter how close you get to her, no matter how you feel about her, you will never be the one for her. Even if you somehow managed to capture her heart, her body and her position as princess – those would belong to another.”
I flashed my teeth at him. Dog growled at the truth being offered so plainly to us. Kalb may say what he wanted, but I knew how her hand upon mine had felt.
“See? You have thought of it. I know that the Empress requested that you observe her interactions with suitors, several of which have just arrived. She will become the wife of another, and you will have to smile and guard her even as she marries another man, bears his children, and has a family without you.”
“Why are you saying all of this?” I hissed.
“Because you need to understand where you stand in this, foolish boy. It gives me no pleasure, but do you think I cannot see how you look at her?” He shook his head sadly. “It is natural at your age to feel such things. Your bond with her makes it even harder. You feel more of her than you should. Women are supposed to be mysterious – that is their nature – but part of her soul will always be bared to you, because of that bond you share. Yet, even with that bond, you two can never be together.”
“It must have been easier for you then to be bonded to the Emperor then, and not the Empress.” I replied sharply. “How would that have been for you?”
“I don’t know. It never happened, and I am happy that it never did, because I never had to deal with that test.” He wasn’t going to worry about hypotheticals. He’d lived too long a life to worry about such things.
“But you never became anything more than his guard and his minister. What of your life, Kalb? You have gifts and talents, the things granted by your Old Blood nature. Why was that never passed on to children? Couldn’t your own offspring serve the Emperor? Why not indenture your bloodline in perpetuity? How has he not demanded that of you?”
“Who is to say what I have done?” He demanded, a true look of anger upon his bearded face. “What do you know of my life, Go? Other than the few weeks we’ve spent together over these years, what do you know? I may have taught you all I know of being a beast, but what have you really learned of me?”
I stared at him, shocked. I’d never considered him as a father. Dog stirred at my side, looking at Kalb with new consideration. “And do you have children, Kalb?”
“My life is my own. It is of no concern of yours.” It sounded like a confirmation, even if he wouldn’t say it.
“And mine? What is my life to be? And what if she decides that she wants me as more than a guardian?” I asked.
It was a hope and a dream. I’d watched my fellow soldiers, dogs and boys like me, as they’d interacted with the women we’d come across in our tours across the land. I’d understood what they did and how they acted, but it had never been for me. Dog and I had always been apart, not matter how close we seemed to our peers at meals and on the battlefields. There was something that kept us separate, and that something was Nokomi. I realized that I’d always been waiting for her. I’d never be able to give myself to another, not while I was bonded to her.
Kalb shook his head sadly, feeling pity for one as naïve as myself. “A princess is a bargaining chip in a kingdom, Go. Her life is no more her own than yours is. She is not her own to give to anyone. A touch, a stolen kiss… no more could come of such things, nothing more than pain.”
“There is more. We could be more.”
“But you won’t.” He insisted.
“Would you stand in our way if that was what she wanted?” How that would test his loyalties. Even if he’d softened in his old age, would he ever defy the Emperor’s wishes for his daughter?
“Would you defy the Emperor, the Empress, the duty of a princess to her nation, and the entire kingdom by yourself?” Kalb asked, and something in his eyes feared my answer. He did not want to be put at odds with me. He needed me, and he didn’t want to have to fight me.
In that moment, I didn’t care. I could only be honest. “I would do whatever she asked of me. Anything. Everything. We are pack.”
Kalb snorted. “Foolish children. You don’t know what you say.”
“Maybe, but I know what I want, and that is for me to be what she wants me to be, whatever that is. I cannot deny her.”
Kalb leaned forward in his chair, eyes glowing yellow. “And if it is just a servant or guardian she wants you to be, will you be satisfied with that?”
I met his gaze defiantly, challenging him. “I will have to be. I live to serve her.” My words might have sounded sure, but the twist in my guts made me realize I would not be. We were pack, and I would do what I could for her, but even I had my limits.
“Then start serving her by being at the gates at dawn. Serve her by watching her uncle’s return.”
“General Navid is coming here?” I paused. I had not seen the man for many months, and I’d never met him in anything more than passing.
Kalb nodded. “He arrives tomorrow. He could have easily arrived today, but that man’s pride would not allow him to arrive on a market day. He will not have competition for his ‘triumphant’ return.”
“Triumphant? What has he triumphed over? We are not at war.”
“Are you certain?” Kalb gritted his teeth and tugged at Teeth’s scruff. Teeth grumped at him, but endured it. “You recall the map that the Emperor was looking over when you arrived?”
“It’s changed. Despite orders, General Navid took it upon himself to take Saluud from the Kingdom of Arven, along our eastern border. He claims it was to secure a better deep water port for our kingdom, so we no longer have to pay them for shipping rights, but it was more likely for his own glory. The Emperor is furious, and he has called him back.”
“The timing is curious, with the Empress pregnant.”
“Indeed.” Kalb stood, going to a wall where an older map was hung between two tapestries of dogs hunting. “That’s why I want you there. I need you to shadow him. Learn what you can of him.”
“You think he’s the one.”
Kalb turned to face me, his face grave and serious. “Never say that aloud again, even if you think you are only in my company. Things have a way of being heard when we least expect them to be.”
“Get out of here, and try not to let your passions put you at odds with your mission, Go.”
“That sounds strikingly like fatherly advice.” I remarked, unable to resist taunting him just a little.
“If you were my child, I would beat some sense into you.” There was a slight smile with that threat, but the flash in his eyes told me that he still thought he could beat me in a fight.
I wasn’t so sure. “Do you think you still could?” Dog nipped at my hand, as if to warn me to shut my mouth.
Teeth sat up and Kalb growled at me, with at least a hint of genuine anger. “Get out of here, and be at the gate tomorrow.”
National Novel Writing Month 2019: The Emperor's Dogs