Tiny’s humble home turned out to be a tent city contained within a small depression that surrounded the entrance to a shallow cave that served as Tiny’s treasury and home. Dozens of tents in a rainbow of colors, mostly faded from the harsh sun, were gathered on either side of a narrow path that led right up to the cave.
Tallow candles on stolen candelabras lit the cave, which was deep enough to shelter everyone in case of a sandstorm, if not the animals. Within the cave were disorderly piles of supplies and random treasures in a mismatch of crates, barrels, and bags. Most of the collection was mundane, but a few items were actually quite extravagant. Tiny and his settlement lived a life of relative comfort with what they’d found, captured, and scavenged.
He’d explained many of these riches initially as plunder from his raids, but we’d since come to understand his business model, which was to work as an escort for merchants who couldn’t afford their own troops of guards as they crossed the deserts on the trade roads to neighboring cities and kingdoms. They also preyed upon the bandits that plied the roads, attacking only those who attacked and stole from the innocent.
Tiny’s code of honor as the Lord of the Vultures had earned him a pass from the Emperor. They’d actually met once or twice, to my surprise. He had full license to continue what he was doing, proven by a writ issued by the Emperor himself, which Tiny kept carefully stored in a scroll case at the back of his cave.
There were several other such encampments within a few days’ journey of the capitol, we’d learned. All told, he could call several hundred scavengers and warriors to his side, which was not a large army, but it was a force to be reckoned with if used properly. Securing the rest of the army we needed to retake the palace would likely fall on me.
Our entourage had fallen into an easy routine since arriving. The Empress took at least one meal every day with Lord Zamir, as she insisted upon calling him, so they could get a further measure of each other and hash out the details of recompense for his assistance in the days to come. Nokomi and Halina joined them more often than not. Together, they dictated notes, which were tied to the ankles of the desert birds that Tiny used to keep in touch with the other camps.
Sherine had quickly become something of a camp mother. Having raised three children on her own, as well as having been something of a foster mother to less-fortunate neighborhood children such as I had been, she’d quickly set about mending garments, making poultices for scrapes, and doing any number of other motherly kindnesses. Her youngest two stayed at her side, when they weren’t playing with the dozen or so camp children. There were few women in the camp, and this was not a place designed for raising children, and the other mothers greatly appreciated Sherine’s efforts. Even the women from the palace pitched in where they could, proving that they were not too good for any sort of menial labor given them.
Adish and Barid had found a simple forge in the camp. Working together, they’d gathered and stacked rocks to improve the furnace structure, and then they’d improved the bellows with what materials they’d found. Then they’d set Jahan to gathering wood for making charcoal, as much as they could make. It burned hotter than the dried discs of camel dung they frequently used for fuel. Apparently, there was no need to worry about anyone seeing smoke this far out from the city. Even if someone did see it, they were not likely to investigate, and Tiny’s army of followers was quite capable of dissuading anything short of a large army from approaching too near their camp.
When we were not catching up with Tiny or attending strategic planning meetings, Dog and I spent our hours patrolling. Tiny and I had little enough to say to each other. Unlike the pleasant reminiscing I’d done with Legs weeks back, Tiny had few memories of his days at the Kennel worth remembering, and I was a reminder of everything wrong that had happened to him there. We gave each other space, though we were polite and friendly when we were together around others.
Patrolling was our duty, or so Dog and I told ourselves, but the truth was things were changing for us. After being away from the city for even a few days, it quickly became apparent that we were meant to be around less people. We might have fit in well enough in the army or in the Emperor’s service, but that was not how we wanted to live. Whether there were a few of Tiny’s scouts with us or not, it was far more peaceful in the desert than in the noisy encampment, although we could not help but wish to have Nokomi beside us.
She must have felt the pull to be together also, for she managed to sneak away from her duties to her family within the camp at least once a day. Drawing on our bond, she was easily able to find us, no matter where we were sitting and staring at the desert.
Nokomi seemed to sense our dislike of the crowds, but she didn’t understand the reasons behind it. “You are spending a lot of time alone, staring out at these changeless lands.”
She sat with Dog between us. Our hands reached over Dog, resting on his back, so we could feel each other’s hand and the reassurance that simple touch gave.
“These lands always change, but the changes are subtle. The way the dunes and hills look today will not be the same tomorrow.” I replied as my fingertips explored the lines of her fingers.
“No matter how the hills change shape, they are still just piles of sand.” She replied.
I laughed at that. She was right, even if she missed the point. “It’s still different.”
“And what of us?”
I looked over at her, squinting to avoid the sun over her shoulder. “What of us?”
“What changes are there in store for us? How are we different from day to day?”
“I live and die for you, Nokomi, the same as ever. If I can regain your home for you and the throne for your brother, then that is well. I just want to be beside you.”
She studied my face for a long moment, trying to hear what was implied but not said. “But you would rather we didn’t go back?”
“You and Neema are both behind Shapur in the line for the throne, despite his age. You have the least claim on the throne, so you have the least reason to return. Yet you belong with your family, and I can’t fault you for going with them.” I said softly.
“And you? Where do you belong?” She asked.
I didn’t even need to think before answering. “With you. Always with you, Nokomi.”
Her hand tightened on mine at my answer. “Where could we go, if we left right now?”
I shook my head. “I own nothing. We would live as fugitives in your own kingdom, as paupers in a neighboring land, or as the Lord of Vultures does, a brigand and sell-sword in the desert. Those are no life for you.”
“Do you understand why I have to go back, Go? And don’t tell me that it is for my position in line for the crown or because my family is going back.”
“You’re going back for revenge.” I answered. Dog looked up at us, whining.
She moved her hand away from mine to offer Dog a comforting scratch between the ears. “You killed the boy who murdered Tiny’s dog, right?”
“Drum. Yes, I ripped his throat out with my own bare hands… my claws. Your father watched and approved.”
“But you put him down for your own reasons, and you would have whether my father allowed it or not.”
“Yes.” I admitted.
“Then you know what I must do to my uncle. It is not for my brother, my mother, or even my sister to do. It is for me. I know I was not supposed to know that father loved me most, but I felt it. That is why it is for me to finish this. I will feel his throat under my own hands.” Her angry eyes were blazing, though they glittered with unshed tears.
“And I will be there to help you get to his throat, Nokomi.” I promised her. “Only, I don’t know where we go after that, the two of us.”
“Let us worry about after when we have reached it, Go. Have you not tried to show me before how dogs live in the present? How they worry about what they can do in the moment, not what is coming on the morrow?”
I nodded, smiling to hear my words given back to me. “And what can we do in the moment?”
She leaned over Dog, who grunted at suddenly being used as a cushion for her elbow. “You can come over here.” She whispered, closing her eyes.
I smiled and put my hand against her cheek, guiding her lips to mine. Dog squirmed to get out from under us, but we ignored him, even when he slipped free of us and stood at attention, looking back in the direction of the camp.
After a sharp bark, I reluctantly pulled away from Nokomi, whose face was so close to mine that I just wanted to stare at it forever, memorizing every last detail, every last eyelash, and every line of her soft lips. Dog wasn’t in the mood to let us be, not with someone approaching. I could hear the soft footfalls on the sand, and I expected it was Jahan, Barid, or even Halina, except that this one smelled different.
I turned and saw a young woman standing several paces away. Curiously, she had a bird resting on her shoulder. She was of an age with Nokomi and I, perhaps a year or two older at most. Her hair fell dark down to her shoulders, her full lips were pursed, and her sharp eyes flashed yellow. In front of her, she carried a twisted piece of metal that I almost recognized.
“Captain Goren? Princess Nokomi?” The girl asked, her voice lilting and high.
“Yes?” Nokomi and I echoed each other, staring at the girl.
The girl quickly dropped to one knee, and the bird on her shoulder flapped its wings and dug into the shoulder pad sewn onto her tunic. While kneeling, she held out two gloved hands and offered up the piece of twisted metal she’d brought with her. “I present you the sword of Emperor Baraz.”
Nokomi stood with surprising speed, hurrying to the girl. She dropped to her knees and reached to receive the ruined weapon. The girl almost lifted her eyes then, but kept her gaze down, even as she was relieved of her burden.
“Who are you?” I asked, but one look at her eyes and I knew. “Those eyes. You are Kalb’s… daughter?”
Nokomi turned to stare at me in surprise. “Kalb has a daughter?”
But once said, the resemblance was impossible to ignore. The girl came to stand once more, dusting off her knee. “He was my father, yes. His dying wish was for me to deliver this sword to Princess Nokomi and then assist Captain Goren in helping the princess achieve her revenge.”
“I will kill my uncle with this very weapon.” Nokomi declared, turning the twisted hunk of metal over in her hands.
“Well, maybe not that exact weapon, but it so happens that Adish is an accomplished smith.” I commented. You couldn’t even cut meat with what was left of the blade. It was a twisted lump of steel.
Dog gave a short bark, and the falcon’s head swiveled his direction. It readjusted its grip on the girl’s shoulder, walking in place and opening its mouth as if to cry out. Dog couldn’t take his eyes off the bird, but made no move to bother it. Something in the falcon’s expression suggested that it would be foolish to attempt anything.
“Then you will accept my service, Princess?” The girl asked. Like the bird, she had a defiant and powerful gaze, as if begging the princess to deny her, just so she could do what she wanted anyway.
Nokomi regarded her, probably wondering why this girl was pledging to her instead of her mother, the Empress. “If I am to accept your service, then I will need a name to call you by, daughter of Kalb…”
“Nasha. My father named my Nasha.” The girl replied, and like that, Nokomi had found herself another soldier in her war against her uncle.
The better question was how she’d found us and how she’d managed to evade Tiny’s soldiers. Apparently, Tiny was thinking the same thing, if the yelling from down in the tent city was any indication.
I heard them before I saw them, the subtle shuffle of skin and cloth against sand. Dog’s hackles rose, and I signaled for the caravan to halt from my lead position.
I let my eyes go along with my nose and ears, taking a share of Dog’s senses. Then I turned slowly, looking for any slight movements that would betray their positions. My left ear perked and I narrowed my eyes on a spot beside a scraggly tree, where cloth had been cleverly covered with sand, hiding the watcher beneath it.
Dog and I sprang toward the shelter, seizing the fabric and ripping it aside. Dust and sand kicked up as I shook the cloth, and a surprised soldier in dun-colored clothing was revealed. He grabbed for his spear, but Dog’s teeth dissuaded him from actually grabbing it. Behind us, I heard the sounds of bowstrings being pulled taut.
“You might not want to do that.” I growled over my shoulder.
They didn’t listen to my warning.
When I heard the twang of an arrow being loosed, I spun to the side, letting the arrow pass through the space I’d just occupied. I roared a challenge to them, and they lowered their bows slightly. They kept the arrows nocked, but pointed them away from us.
“Take me to the Lord of the Vultures. We’re old friends. He’ll want to see me.” I said with a toothy smile.
The two bowmen exchanged glances beneath their headscarves. They nodded to one another and trained their bows on me once more.
“Stop!” Nokomi shouted from the wagons, quickly dismounting and rushing our way.
Instead, the two men turned to aim at her instead. Halina jumped down to put herself between the men and the princess, which meant that foolish Jahan had to do the same, despite his mother’s frantic cries.
“Nokomi!” I growled. She’d just put herself in an impossible situation. I wasn’t going to be able to stop two arrows before they got to her. No matter how far I let myself go toward the beast’s side, that would be beyond my speed.
“That’s quite enough.” A deep voice called. A great monster of a dog crested a dune, followed by a man nearly as broad as he was wide.
At his command, the soldiers stood down, putting away their arrows and standing at attention, their short bows held in their left hands.
“This is some welcome you had waiting for me, Tiny.” I called over to him, letting my displeasure carry in my tone. Dog kept our man cornered in his shelter, though he put his teeth away, giving his snarl a pause.
Tiny’s deep laugh echoed in the little depression between hills we were caught in. “When I smelled you and Dog on the wind, I just had to see how rusty my old Pack Leader had let himself get.” He grinned widely, his lips parting to show jagged teeth beneath his scraggly beard.
He shuffled down the sand with all of the grace of a rolling stone. Sand tumbled ahead of him, cascading down the slope. I waited for him to make his way down, observing the costume he’d assembled. He wore simple desert garb covered in a grey cloak that looked as ragged as any beggar’s, and he’d worked hundreds of long, dark feathers into it. They blew in the wind, surrounding him like wings. Shiny stones had been worked into the cloth of his head wrap, giving him the illusion of having eyes and a beak. He had taken the title of Lord of the Vultures very literally, it seemed.
He stopped some five paces away from me, with his beast of an animal beside him. Bear had definitely not gotten any smaller since I’d last seen him. If anything, he was larger, which was impressive. I’d been a young man when I’d first met Bear and Drum, Bear’s original partner. Bear had seemed huge to me then, but after rebonding to Tiny, the animal had grown. I was certain that at his current size, he was even larger than Teeth. That didn’t even begin to cover the changes in Tiny, who had been the smallest boy at the Kennel. I might have still been a bit taller than him, but Tiny was more broad and solid than even Adish.
“I see you’re well-fed in the desert.” I remarked casually.
Tiny laughed. “You’re just upset that you can’t call me ‘Tiny’ anymore.”
“You’ll always be Tiny to me, oh majestic Lord of the Vultures.” I gave him a mocking bow, grinning across the space between us.
Tiny threw open his arms and walked into an embrace. I hugged him back fiercely. Dog and Bear reacquainted themselves in the way of dogs, allowing the cornered soldier to finally escape and go to join his fellows on the hill.
“By the Gods, you smell as if you eat like a vulture.” I grumbled, exaggerating a bit. My nose was sharper than a human’s, so I did pick up on some interesting smells about him, likely from the feathers.
“It’s part of the mystique.” Tiny tried to look offended, but couldn’t manage it. He flapped his cloak like wings.
I wrinkled my nose. “I’m surprised your enemies don’t smell you coming.”
“Enough, enough!” He gave me a playful punch on the shoulder with a meaty fist, which actually hurt, even when he didn’t put much force into it.
“Go?” Nokomi called over.
“Is that who I think it is?” Tiny asked. “From the statues?”
I smiled at that. They’d put statues of the whole royal family up at the Kennel. Drum and Bear had defaced Nokomi’s statue with the whole of Pack Chahar, precipitating a fight that ultimately led the further conflict and the death of Tiny’s first dog. Losing his dog had nearly killed Tiny, and I’d put down Drum like a sick animal because of it.
I was not innocent in the whole scheme, because I’d been as unwilling to back down as any of them. The unfortunate thing was that Tiny had taken the brunt of the suffering, not me. I still regretted how it had all happened, even if Tiny and Bear had been able to connect and save each other from the death that inevitably claimed any who lost their master or their dog.
“Nokomi.” I agreed, waving her over.
“You made it back to her after everything.” Tiny said admiringly. “Good for you.”
I smiled at that. “She is everything I ever wanted, and more.”
“And does she actually want you back?” He asked, half-joking, but also pointing out that what we are does not make relationships easy.
“I think she does. I feel that she does.” I answered.
Tiny watched me watching her and realization dawned upon him. “She is part of your pack.”
I nodded. No use denying it, not to one of our kind. He’d know I was being false with him. “She has been ever since that day when I was a boy. She bonded herself to me, and Dog and I claimed her at ours.”
Nokomi approached slowly, with Halina and Jahan flanking her and leading by a half step, acting the part of her bodyguards. Jahan didn’t have either the size or the walk to pull it off, but he tried. I could see Adish and Sherine arguing about their son’s sudden bravado, but they made no move to stop him, which I am sure he appreciated. It was hard to be a tough guy with your mother watching. Barid wisely stayed out of it, managing to keep Jaleh and Radwan out of harm’s way while their parents argued about their older brother.
“Princess.” Tiny gave her a low bow that was surprisingly graceful for such a broad man. Truly, it was hard to see that scrawny lad in this mountain of a man.
She inclined her head in a stately manner, curtsying ever so slightly. “I am not sure what to call you in return, other than ‘Lord of the Vultures,’ but it is a mouthful, and it does not exactly seem flattering…”
“Ahh, but you don’t understand the compliment my enemies have paid me by naming me thus. Vultures are survivors. Like them, my men and I are quite good at finding food and riches in the desert, and in this place,” Tiny turned to indicate the desert around us, “there are many unsuspecting treasures to be found.”
Nokomi just stared at him, unsure of what to say. She smiled politely and waited until I cleared my throat.
“Zamir.” Tiny offered hastily. “I would be honored if you called me, Zamir, Princess Nokomi.” He smiled toothily.
I glanced sideways at Tiny, surprised that he’d shared his private name with her. I knew that he’d sought out his family after he left the Kennel. Apparently, he had found them, and he’d learned his birth name. Perhaps it was more fitting than ‘Tiny.’
His smiled faded, his face turning all business. “Now, what brings the illustrious Captain Goren and the beautiful Princess Nokomi out into my wild kingdom of sand and snakes?”
“She has not come alone, Lord Zamir.” The Empress announced, joining the conversation. She knew how to make an entrance, appearing both regal and maternal as she strolled up to us with her son on her hip, letting the wind tug at her hair and simple clothes. She looked like a desert goddess.
Tiny looked to me in surprise. If he’d recognized Nokomi from her statue, then there was no mistaking who this other woman was. “What exactly have you gotten me into, Go? First the Princess, now the Empress, and if I’m not mistaken, that is the heir?”
With him, I would not mince words. Our history was too deep. I would not and could not lie to him about the business we were about. “Civil war, my friend. We are about civil war and the opportunities such a thing brings for men of heart with strong swords and vicious dogs.”
Tiny silently regarded the lot of us, pausing before answering. “I had heard of some disturbance in the capitol. Merchants fleeing the city before it could be locked down carried with them the most curious news.”
“What you’ve heard is true. The Emperor, my husband, was murdered by his brother.” The Empress met Tiny’s eyes with her own formidable gaze. Her voice nearly cracked, but that was understandable, and it lent her a vulnerability that spoke of her strength as well. “My daughter, my son, and I have fled, and we are looking for friends.”
“I am most sorry for your loss, Empress Anahita.” Tiny’s sad expression swept to take in both the princess and the baby heir.
The Empress shook her head. “Now is not the time to grieve, Lord Zamir. Now is the time to seek revenge and reclaim what should belong to my children, not the murderous swine that now sits on my husband’s throne.”
Tiny’s eyes glittered with a hungry sort of excitement that I knew meant we had just found our allies. “This is not a conversation meant for the middle of the desert, fair Empress. The sand has eyes and ears, they say, so let me invite you all back to the comfort of my home, that we might plot and plan your triumph.”
“That would be most appreciated.” The Empress admitted.
Tiny whistled and more of his men appeared, popping out of hidden places that even Dog and I had overlooked. No less than a dozen soldiers had appeared, far more than I likely could have handled on my own.
“This is my kingdom, Go.” Tiny said smugly when he noticed the look on my face. “And I knew what you’d be looking for.”
The Empress met my eyes with a look of approval. She found Tiny and his secret army acceptable. Tiny was a hard man now, the sort of man it took to survive out in a place like this. He and his kind were exactly the type of men we needed beside us in times like these.
I’d done right by bringing them here.
National Novel Writing Month 2019: The Emperor's Dogs