Returning to the city was a homecoming of sorts. I had no one waiting there for me, no home to return to, and no treasured mementos from my youth. While I had very few fond memories of my life as a child in the city, it was home nonetheless. What I did have, was my memories of Nokomi, but also of a friend, someone who had helped me when I was young.
As badly as I wanted to see Nokomi, there was another that I had to see first.
Adish had been the closest thing I’d ever had to family in my childhood. I found his shop exactly where I remembered it, not far from the market, near the streets where I’d hidden and lived with Dog. The familiar clang of hammers upon heated metal reached my ears before the smell of the forge reached my nose. I found myself grinning with anticipation as I approached. Dog’s steps were excited and quick beside me.
Dog and I stopped and watched for a long moment before going in. The modest shop, which had once only taken up a corner of the building, had spread around the side, now taking up half of the first floor. A tall chimney ran up one side of the building, letting out heat and ash, which had stained the walls on the second and third floors of the neighboring building black with soot.
Large holes had been cut in the walls of the shop, portals where windows would have been in more expensive shops, or places where venting the heat wasn’t such an issue. Here, they just let out the oppressive heat of the forge and let in much-needed light. Heavy wooden shutters attached above the portals could be lowered to cover the shop in case of rain or if the shop was closed, such as on the market days during weekends.
Adish stood over the anvil, pounding on heated metal that his assistant held with tongs. Barked orders let the assistant know when to turn or flip the metal. They had a great rhythm about them, and the assistant was often able to anticipate orders by instinct, having done this many times. They worked with precision, a union that I appreciated as a soldier. In some ways, these two, along with the young boy who worked the bellows, were like a pack.
What surprised me, though it should not have, was that this was not Barid working beside Adish. Barid had been a year or so older than me when I’d started working in the shop. I’d only been good enough to work the bellows for the few weeks, months perhaps, that I’d been there, but Barid had done what this assistant was doing right now. How old would he be now? How long had it been? Eight years? Ten?
Time passes strangely when you’re in the service of the Emperor.
Dog licked my hand, signaling that he was ready to go in. I was as well, so we walked up to the store. We approached, stopping at the main entrance, the one customers would use. The side entrance was for deliveries or workers.
“Just let me put this in the quench.” Adish called over, noticing movement at the door without looking up.
He added a couple more pounds of the hammer to the piece he’d been working on. Then he nodded toward the iron-banded water barrel nearby. His assistant struggled to carry the heavy piece of hot iron over to the water barrel, where he plunged it in. It sizzled satisfactorily. I’d always appreciated that sound.
Adish wiped his hands on a towel he kept at his waist, and started my way. I took a measure of him, grinning widely as our eyes met.
Adish was a large man, broad of shoulders from years of swinging a hammer. You put on muscle working metal, because it was not something that yielded easily to your will. It was not like clay or even wood, which can be easily shaped. It takes heat, muscle, and force to make it do what you will. That is something that both Dog and I understand well.
Adish had aged, certainly, but he did not look old, other than the new wrinkles about his eyes and on his forehead. I could tell that he favored his left shoulder, and he’d probably get a few more years out of his right one before he had to take on a more supervisory position. His eyes were still kind, knowing, and wise. He had a fatherly feel about him, despite my never having known my own. If I ever imagined a father, he always looked like Adish, with his same dark beard, although it was now turning grey at the chin.
His eyes took in me, with recognition slowly dawning across his features as he saw Dog beside me. Suddenly, his steps faltered, and he stumbled toward me, his mouth failing him in forming words.
“Go…” He nearly cried, throwing a giant hug around my shoulders.
We were of a height now, although he was easily broader than I was and ever would be. Where he was broadly built, I was wiry and strong, like the desert hunting dog I called my companion. I clenched him back tightly, taking in his familiar musky scent of iron, smoke, and sweat.
Flashes of my childhood came back to me then, and I smiled, saying his name, “Adish.”
When he pulled away, he laughed and clapped me across the shoulder. “How is it you are here, boy? You and that dog of yours…”
I grinned. “It is a long story, my friend.” My eyes took in the questioning looks from his two assistants.
Adish took my wrist and dragged me to a small sitting area where I remembered eating his wife Sherine’s cooking. He waved the two boys over and we sat together. The boys took to Dog immediately, playing with his round ears and marveling over his mottled coloring. He was certainly not like any dog they’d ever played with, and Dog enjoyed the attention.
As I watched them play, realization set in. “They are your boys.” It was impossible not to see it now. The similarities were undeniable.
“Yes, they are my eldest two children, Jahan and Radwan. They help in in the shop now. Jahan has been learning for a few years, and Radwan has just begun to work the bellows, as you once did.”
I smiled at the memories. “That was some time ago, before everything that happened.” My smile faded. “I didn’t mean to leave as I did. I wasn’t given a choice that day. I was simply taken away.”
“I know.” Adish said sadly.
“Do you?” I thought back. Had Nokomi managed to get word to him? “Then she told you?”
Adish nodded. “Yes, she sent word to me. Apparently, she searched this whole area for everyone named Adish and Barid. It took her some doing, as our names are not uncommon, and she wasn’t allowed back out for several weeks after what happened to you in the Bazaar. Eventually, one of her servant girls found me and told me you had been taken away.”
Dog quirked his head at me. I frowned. Adish deserved the whole story, but what was I allowed to share? Some of the things I’d done were secret, things I could not share. “But you never got the whole story?”
“Oh, but I did, at least what the princess would share.” Adish replied.
“So you met her? Nokomi?”
Adish’s eyebrow rose in wonder. “I would not refer to her so familiarly, but yes. The princess came here. She told me how one of her father’s guards had captured you and taken you away. She also told me how your dog and you had saved her from a desert cat when you were very young, and she’d always felt indebted to you.”
That was one way to put it. Knowing now what I did now about her family’s blood-fire magic, I doubted she had even been seriously in danger, but Dog and I wore the scars of our efforts anyway. My forehead still bore a jagged scar where much of it had been peeled back by the cat’s claws. It had faded, but it was still there. It tingled as I thought about it and her.
“We were taken away to a place to be trained to serve as soldiers. That’s where I have been since then. Dog and I impressed Emperor Baraz that morning years ago. After our training, we were conscripted into his army and have been soldiering on the border territories since then.” I explained. It was true enough, if a simpler version that omitted many important details.
“The life of a soldier is a respectable profession, Go, if a difficult lifestyle. Does it suit you?” Adish asked carefully. He knew I hadn’t been given a choice.
“Well enough, Adish, well enough. However, we are back now! We have bene given new orders that have brought us home, so we wanted to greet you and tell you that we still thought of you after all of this time. Your kindness back then, it meant a lot to both of us.”
Dog yipped in agreement, eliciting a jump and a laugh from Adish’s youngest, Radwan. The dark haired, dark eyed boy favored Sherine, his mother.
“That is good to hear. A familiar face is always welcome, even after years.” He smiled broadly.
“And what of Barid? Where is his familiar face?” I wondered.
Adish put on a proud smile. “That boy, he has much talent. He is a master with a shop of his own now! Your disappearance did us well, not that I would wish it upon you, but the attention of a princess on a humble shop such as this does not hurt!”
“I noticed it was a larger shop now…” I glanced around once more. Adish had prospered. He had always taken care of his tools and shop, but the expansion was not the only show of fortunate times. He had more tools, a new forge, and several other telltale signs of a business doing well.
“Well, after she came here, we set to talking more than once. Sherine joined us when she could. Radwan was so young at the time, and my daughter, Jaleh, was just a babe. The princess took a liking to my wife and children, and she made sure the palace always sent some of its simpler work this way. They always have a need for tools, horseshoes, and the like.”
“That was kind of her.” I imagined Nokomi sitting in this same chair, talking to Adish and his wife. It made me feel closer to her, even though I hadn’t been here to witness it.
“Things like that get noticed. Soon after, we started getting more business from higher clientele. Barid, that boy… he got it in his head that we should start creating pieces that were not just functional, but also decorative. At first, I laughed it off, for a good hammer does not require a delicate leaf pattern upon it, nor does a horseshoe need grapevines along its side, but I indulged him. He had the deft hands and skill to make the intricate designs, so I let him play around.”
“It worked, didn’t it?”
Adish shook his head and laughed. “I found myself swimming in orders. I don’t think I took a day off for nearly a year, unless Sherine forced me to. Barid and I stayed busy for a good while. We prospered, and, while he is gone, I learned something of his methods, and I’ve worked to make my designs both functional and decorative.”
“And where is he now?”
“He runs his own shop across the way.” Adish nodded toward the window and down the street in the direction of the Bazaar. “He works with softer metals now. He never liked the heat and the heavy hammers that much anyway, but his pewter and silver designs are very fashionable. I imagine he’s richer than I am already, despite having only started off on his own a couple years ago. I wish him well. He is a hard-working lad.”
I could hear the pride in his voice. It was good that they were all doing so well. “Things have worked out then, for all of us. I should like to see him again, at some point, if just to say hello. I doubt he much remembers me anyway.”
“Oh, there is not a one of us that forgot your face, Go. You and that mysterious dog of yours, you two are something of a legend around here. That rat-meat seller never forgot you, either!” He laughed deeply, from his belly.
I grinned. My command of language and my understanding of the value of money had both improved a lot since those days. “I’m glad to have made such an impression.”
“You have indeed, Go. I shall have to tell Sherine you visited. She will be delighted to hear of your return. We always wondered… I just know that she would insist on cooking a meal for all of us, Barid included, if you ever have the time to come back down our way.”
“I will make time.” I promised, standing. Dog hopped up beside me, stomach rumbling as he shared my thoughts. Adish’s kindly wife was an excellent cook, and I very much suspected that her meal would help Dog and I forget months of military rations. “For now, I need to get to my post at the palace.”
“The palace, then? You must be a fine soldier indeed.” Adish surmised.
“The best, Adish.” I grinned wolfishly. Dog shared a toothy smile as well.
He gave the both of us a look and nodded seriously. “I don’t doubt it. You have that look about you. You both are much more than you seem on the surface.”
I would not respond to that, but with that, we hugged once more, and then Dog and I made for the door. As we walked off, I could hear Adish telling his boys more about us when they bombarded him with questions, most likely more about Dog than about me. Even having known what Nokomi had told them of our fates, he’d never really got to hear what happened to us after we were taken away. Now he knew that we were well, and I hoped it was a weight lifted off of his shoulders.
We had not been his responsibility, but he had taken us on, and he was the sort that carried those burdens on his heart. Now, he could think of us and be at ease.
National Novel Writing Month 2019: The Emperor's Dogs