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.
Neema was very much like her sister and yet so very different at the same time.
Neema was taller than Nokomi, although it was yet to be seen if that would hold true forever. Nokomi was certainly taller now than I remembered her, but at eighteen or nineteen years of age, I did not know if she’d reached her full height yet. She likely had, but one never knew. Still, I suspected that Neema would always be at least a little taller than her sister, if slighter of build.
Truthfully, Halina and Neema looked more like sisters than Nokomi and Neema did, except in the eyes. Neema had those same warm eyes as Nokomi, brown with a hint of red, the color of melted chocolate or warm coffee with the sun shining through it.
I would not be unfairly partial to Nokomi if I said that she was prettier than Neema, since most would find Nokomi’s features more pleasing to the eyes. Neema was attractive in her own way, but she paled in comparison to her younger sister, who seemed to grow more beautiful by the day. Neema was intelligent-looking, with observant eyes and a narrow mouth that only opened after she carefully considered her words. Her face was a bit long, and she had a prominent nose, taking more after her father than her mother. Nokomi, on the other hand, had much of her mother’s look about her face, sharing her elegant bone structure and delicate features.
Neema moved with grace, making her a careful presence in any room. Her steps were as light and careful as her words, and her betrothed, Dastan, doted upon her. When his full attention was upon her, she glowed, becoming more attractive. It was strange to watch the two of them together, shining in each other’s presence.
As an official, if yet unannounced, intended husband to the princess, Dastan was allowed into the royal residence for his visits with Neema. Of course, they were still supervised, mostly. Neema was too careful to let anything untoward occur anyway, or so Halina had explained to me.
This was only my second time in the royal residence, but it was my first visit on official business. Uninvited incursions onto the princess’ balcony in the deep hours of the night were generally not considered official business. I smiled, thinking about that. Kalb probably knew of it, seeing as he knew almost everything that happened around the palace. As of yet, he’d chosen not to punish me or confront me about it.
The sitting room we were meeting in was on the ground floor of the royal residence. Generally speaking, outsiders never went above the first floor. Dog and I had already violated that rule apparently.
The room was richly and comfortably decorated. Mosaics had been painted on the walls, scenes of deserts blooming, oases, and studies of wildlife. Dog and I even found a hunting dog like him hiding in a corner of one painting. It was a small detail, but we appreciated his inclusion. We studied the layers of painting, wondered if it had always been there, or if it had been added afterward.
Dozens of potted plants, ferns and flowering shrubs mostly, had been placed around the room to make it feel more lush and peaceful. Water trickled in a fountain to one side, offering more privacy with its gentle noise. A ring of chairs and benches with woven cushions surrounded the fountain, with small round tables placed between them for refreshments.
Neema sat beside Dastan on one bench, hands close but not quite touching. She was beaming at him as he told her a simple story of his morning, something apparently humorous but otherwise commonplace. I didn’t understand the point of the tale, but the two were all looks, smiles, and teeth as he retold the events. It was foolishness, but I found myself unable to stop watching them.
Neema had her own handmaiden, Kamaria, sitting on the bench next to her. She was a somewhat homely girl with an infectious laugh, wide hips, and a prodigious bosom. She covered her mouth with her dainty hands when she laughed, which was frequently and loudly. Everyone liked her instantly, because she had a disarming manner that made her quite easy to like. Dastan’s manservant had certainly taken to her, if his eyes and heartrate were any indication.
“They are something, aren’t they?” Nokomi asked, coming up beside me.
“Kamaria and Dastan’s man?” I asked facetiously. I cracked a smile.
Nokomi frowned at me, shaking her head.
“They are at peace with each other. I envy them.” I admitted, trying hard not to look too long at the gauzy layers of fabric that surrounded Nokomi. They surrounded her like morning mist, disguising but not fully hiding her figure.
Nokomi cast a glance sideways at me, studying my face. I met her gaze. She did not look down or away, as Halina had started to do since learning my true nature. Nokomi was the only one who met my gaze, other than Kalb or the Emperor and Empress. Even many of the other boys from the Kennel, like Legs and the others, had learned to avert their eyes. It was a dominance thing, and they instinctively looked aside first so as not to challenge me. Nokomi wasn’t that way, and I loved it about her.
“It’s the little things…” I explained in a tone just above a whisper, nodding back at Neema and Dastan. “It’s the way he focuses on her mouth when she speaks or meets her eyes and they both break into a grin.”
She snorted a slight laugh. “They’re a bit too much sometimes. They definitely like each other.”
I focused on Dastan, watching him study Neema’s lips. “He’s wondering what her mouth tastes like.”
“He is not!” Nokomi protested, hiding a laugh with her hand.
I leaned over to Nokomi, speaking right next to her ear. “Watch his eyes, his body language. If we were not here, the conversation would be quite different, a lot more physical.”
Nokomi swallowed, and I smiled at the uptick in her heartrate as she studied her sister’s interaction with Dastan. We watched as Dastan’s fingertips inched over to touch Neema’s hand and Neema’s cheeks blushed slightly, only noticeable if you were looking for it.
“You may be right.” She whispered.
I braved the moment, trying to recapture what I’d felt on the balcony. I reached over and took her hand in mine. “Could we ever be like that?”
She stared at me for a long moment, searching for words. Then she looked away, eyes suddenly misty. “Probably not, Go.”
I let her hand go and nodded. Dog shifted unhappily at my side. To his credit, it was Nokomi that was the source of his displeasure. He nudged my leg with his hip, offering a reassuring presence.
“In another world or another time, maybe.” She offered a moment later, softening the blow a little, but a soft touch on the arm could not remove the sting of denial.
I took a breath and stood my ground, observing the room, as was my duty. I’d not been asked here to make advances on Nokomi.
Halina and Lila had accompanied Nokomi to this meeting, extra witnesses to the courtship. They also sat on the benches near Neema and Dastan, and I found that Halina was carefully looking everywhere but at Nokomi and I. She’d definitely seen what had just happened. Neema’s arched eyebrow also seemed to indicate that she’d noticed the exchange. She was astute if nothing else.
“We can’t talk here.” Nokomi whispered, loud enough that only I could hear. She glided away with a smile to join her sister.
Moments later, Dastan had given up his seat to Nokomi, and the two sisters were clasping hands, leaning on each other, and laughing. Dog and I stood apart from the others, never more aware of the gulf between these people and our pack. We were different and always would be. We were watching them, feeling for the first time like we would have given anything to be part of that group, but knowing we could never be.
Dog settled back on his haunches, observing. I did the same, leaning against the wall with the ease I’d learned as a soldier. Given time when little was required of you, one had to learn how to conserve energy. Why stand if you could lean, and why lean if you could sit? Sitting wasn’t exactly guarding though, so I leaned, relaxed but ready to move if needed.
That’s when Dog and I noticed it.
Servants had just arrived with another round of snacks and refreshments. Dog’s nose picked up the savory scents of meat and cheeses and sweets. We caught the scent of berries, a rare treat indeed in this season. The two servers smiled and excitedly described the delicacies they carried on their silver platters.
Dog and I shifted forward a pace, sensing something off. Only one of them wore gloves, although their uniforms were otherwise the same. The one without gloves seemed more anxious, more pleased to be serving. Neema lifted her hand to reach for one of the berries.
“They’re deliciously tart.” The ungloved man said with an obsequious smile.
Dog’s nostrils flared, sensing something foreign. My eyes widened and I threw myself forward with a snarl. With muscles inhumanly strong and reflexes that matched any animal, I hurtled over a plant and a bench, sliding toward the servant. With an animal growl, I slapped the tray aside and, in doing so, sent the servant tumbling over the bench he stood beside. The man went sprawling on the floor, dishes clattering loudly around him. Berries smeared across the floor like dark blood.
It all happened so fast. Neema’s eyes closed involuntarily, and she flinched away. Dastan tried to shield her from whatever was happening, but he was not nearly fast enough. He had one arm around her and the other out to fend me off, but there was nothing he could have done to stop the actual attacker, and less he could have done against me.
Lila and Dastan’s man both stared wide-eyed at me. The other server looked about ready to piss himself, and the dishes rattled on his tray as he trembled nervously. Kamaria’s amiable laugh had turned to a shriek of surprise, Nokomi was screaming at me to stop whatever I was doing, and Halina had drawn her knife protectively.
“Captain Goren!” Nokomi hissed, coming fully into her anger now. She stood and huffed, ready to launch into a tirade against me.
I turned to glare at her, shaking off the fire burning through my scalp as her anger made itself known acutely. Dog barked and lunged after the other server, who’d come to his feet with his own knife drawn even after being knocked down.
I let go completely then.
In mere moments, my teeth elongated under my lips, and my eyes went yellow. The skin of my fingertips parted to let claws tear out. My ears lengthened along with my face, which gave may to coarse fur along my jawline and down my neck. My muscles bulked and tightened, straining under the confines of my clothes; they were like fired steel, waiting to be given shape and direction.
Kamaria’s shrieks turned to fearful screams.
The server-turned-assassin slashed at me with his blade, a feint designed to get me to go on the defensive so he could go after Neema. That might have worked against a normal man. I was anything but normal. I brushed aside his feint and shattered his forearm with a chop of my hand. He cried out and was spun around with the force of my blow. He tried once more to reach for Neema with his good arm, but Dog intercepted him. With a broken arm and Dog’s jaws clamped around his other wrist, the assassin went down, howling in pain.
I crouched over the man, lifting him up by his shirt front. In the state I was in, he was no more heavy to me than a child. Dog let go as I lifted him, his teeth leaving deep punctures in the man’s arm that dribbled blood on the floor.
I snarled in his face, saliva splattering over his cheeks. “Who sent you?” I growled, having trouble forming the words properly with my altered mouth.
He shook his head, refusing to answer. I shook him, repeating my question. Still, he refused to answer. I held him up with my left hand and squeezed his shattered forearm with my right. I felt the broken bones shift under his skin, and he screamed, eyes widening.
At about that moment, dishes clattered to the ground behind me and I smelled fresh urine coming from the other server. Fear sweat was thick in the room, but I ignored it. Snorting a laugh, I threw the man into the corner, tossing him like a ragdoll.
“Get him, Dog.” I nodded my head toward the man and barked.
Dog set upon him as if he were a rabbit or a toy, harrying his limbs as he flailed about and tried to protect himself. Blood sprayed from a dozen wounds before I called him off, and only because I realized that Nokomi was shouting in my ear for me to stop. I’d been so focused on my task that I hadn’t even heard her, not until she took my face in her two hands and made me meet her eyes.
“Go… Stop.” She repeated again and again.
Dog fell back two paces and waited for the man to make a move, any move more than crying in the corner. I noticed that some of his blood had splattered on the murals near where the wild dog had been painted. It lent a sort of poetic accuracy to the painting to have been painted on by the same sort of animal. I laughed maniacally and turned back to Nokomi, confident that the man was no more threat. He certainly wouldn’t walk out of the room.
Only then did I notice the expressions on the others around me.
Dastan was aghast, but he clutched Neema to him protectively, shielding her eyes and face against his chest. His heart hammered in his chest, and I could smell the terror on him. Even so, he had the ability to meet my gaze. He swallowed audibly, to me at least. He had the look of a baby animal staring at its own death.
Halima wore a grim look. Her knife shook in her hand, still held before her. There was this look of surrender in her eyes. She knew she couldn’t stand against something like me, not if I wanted to do her harm, and I scared her. She was the sort that would have fought to her death, even knowing it was inevitable. There was steel in her.
Lila, Kamaria, Dastan’s man, and the other servant all looked at me as if I were a monster, something they wished would disappear from sight.
I ignored them, looking back to Nokomi once more. “This is what I am.” I whispered.
Her hands swept down my face to my shoulders, down my arms, to my hands. She took both of my clawed hands in hers and looked deeply and sadly into my yellow eyes. “I know.”
“There was poison. We could smell it.” I explained.
She nodded. “I believe you.”
“I would do anything to protect you.” I growled, looking back at the assassin with his ruined arms, scratched face, and bleeding legs.
She squeezed my hands with her much smaller ones. Mine were larger anyway, and the clawed tips of my fingers just made it more pronounced. “I know that, Go, but now you need to leave. The guards will be here to take care of our attacker. We don’t want any misunderstandings when they arrive. Halina and I can watch that man until they get here.”
“But…” I started to protest.
“I’m your princess, Captain Goren. Listen to my orders.”
I let the beast slide away then, shifting back toward my humanity. Dog still stood guard over the would-be assassin.
“Leave.” Nokomi ordered, her expression and tone offering no other course.
Dog and I left, listening to Nokomi bark orders to all still present that they were not to speak of what they’d just seen, none of it. It struck me then that Nokomi, even though she was the younger sister, had taken command of the situation. I was proud of her.
Yet, I wondered how this would play out, and I retreated to my residence, where I waited for my next audience with Emperor Baraz and Minister Kalb. I knew would not have to wait long, not after what had just happened.
National Novel Writing Month 2019: The Emperor's Dogs