I’d never been to the palace before. It was not a place that a child visits when he lives in the streets, as I had. No, my time in the city had mostly been spent sleeping, scavenging for food, and avoiding the human predators that prowled a big city’s dark and narrow side streets. Many times I’d found that people were nastier creatures than the beasts that lived in the wild.
The palace was expansive, making up an entire section of the city by itself, a different quarter than I had lived in. The palace itself was a complex of buildings, all walled in, with walls within walls and more small buildings within those walls. Surrounding the palace was something of a second city, where the scribes, attendants, officers, and officials lived, as well as those who served them. The farther you lived from the palace grounds, the lower your rank.
I approached the palace through this surrounding village first, marveling at the luxury even the lowest of them appeared to live in. Their grounds were all well-kept, with manicured shrubs lining the approaches and decorative flowers sitting in expensive pottery. Many of these estates had their own walls, with two to four buildings within them. Their roofs were tiled, lofting above the walls and gates that surrounded them. Here and there, I could even see second or third stories, where men and women went about their morning work on balconies that overlooked their neighbors.
Dog and I looked at each other. We’d lived on cots in dusty tents or worse for the last few years. The Kennel, where we’d first been trained, had initially offered no better than moldering old blankets and hard-packed dirt floors. We’d changed that, so we’d eventually slept on straw-stuffed mattresses, and we’d taken to eating our meals at the low kneeling tables that were now in favor. Still, we couldn’t imagine living in such comfort, and we hadn’t even seen the palace yet.
The last few houses we passed even had soldiers out front, guards with halberds that brought to mind the auburn guards of the Kennel. Like these soldiers, the auburn guards had always watched us to make sure we remained more man than beast, never stepping out of line. Not that they’d been able to always control us. No, Dog and I were wilder than what they’d dealt with before our coming, and everyone we’d met there had been changed because of our meeting.
We finally approached the palace, or at least the outer wall of the palace. A low wall, perhaps the half again as tall as I was, marked the outer perimeter of the palace. A simple gate with a tiled roof and heavy wooden doors wrapped in iron marked the entrance. A squad of soldiers, eight total, stood by. I knew from the low roof just beyond the gate that there was another score at least waiting by in a the guardhouse. It was a pretty standard setup for any fort in the kingdom, but there would be even more guards stationed here than I was used to. Security would be tighter, more levels of defense stacked upon each other.
Beyond the gate and wall, I could see ornamented watchtowers, including at least two where bells could be rang to signal attack. If the bells sounded, soldiers would pour out of their stations and move to bar doors and lock down each section of the palace. Attackers would have to make their way through at least half a dozen gated walls and obstacles to get to anywhere significant, more if they wanted to get to the royal family and the highest advisors. I smiled at this, thinking about how my mind had been trained to visually probe for weaknesses.
The guards halted me, eyeing Dog and I warily. I wore no signs of rank, though I was effectively a captain in the army and outranked all of these men, except perhaps whatever officer they had in charge of this gate, although he was not currently visible.
Smiling, I offered my orders to the men, who took them and read carefully. Upon reading my name at the bottom, two of the men looked at each other, whispering my name amongst themselves. Clearly, they’d heard of me or my exploits.
“Captain Goren, proceed in.” One of the said quickly. They sketched a hasty military bow, stepping aside.
I nodded and entered the palace, scanning from side to side and ignoring the soldiers’ whispers, though I could still hear them. Two large covered pavilions were ahead of me to my left and right with another, smaller gate just in front of me, a long stone’s throw away.
The large pavilions stood on both ends of the massive C-shaped building beyond them. They were open to the air, with heavy wooden stairs leading up to three floors of walkways and seating areas. Soldiers, officers, and palace workers were evident on each floor, walking, talking, and taking tea together in discussions of politics and intrigue. I cared little for them, noting that Nokomi was not among them.
I could sense her, somewhat distant, but so near to me, nearer than I’d felt her since I was a child. Dog and I quick-stepped toward the small gate between the pavilions, working closer to the palace proper, feeling that it was the correct way to go to reach Nokomi. Once more, I flashed my orders and ignored the whispers.
Now I was inside the palace grounds. Rounded, onion-shaped towers were at my left and right, the endcaps to the largest building I’d ever seen. The building was in the shape of a large open rectangle with a missing side, with the open end toward me. Built in the space between the three walls was a long courtyard, cast in shadows by the palace. This section of the palace was impressively large, the largest building of the entire palace complex in fact. Only the royal residence was close in size, but it was merely half as large as this giant structure.
This part of the palace had been built with marble columns that supported two very tall balconied stories, the upper of which was lined with hundreds of horseshoe arches. It had been built in a style that marked it as a remnant of our old rulers, the leaders of this land before Nokomi’s family had come and conquered our lands. Only the onion domes at the ends of the building looked to be new additions to this part of the palace. Their copper plating burned like the sun itself, making me look aside.
The courtyard I stood at the entrance to was covered with a crisscross of graveled paths that led between ornamental plants and flowering or fruited trees. Benches and covered sitting areas were placed strategically around the long courtyard, and there were also several small ponds with decorative bridges spanning across them. People in ornamental clothes and official garb gathered in the sitting areas or walked and talked as they enjoyed the grounds.
On any other day, Dog and I would have likely to do the same. We would have stopped to explore, watching the fat fish wriggle through the warm ponds, or taken in some shade beneath a fragrant tree. Today, we only had one goal, and she was growing nearer by the moment. I could feel it in my forehead, which had gone from a tingle to a warm burn. She knew we were coming, and she was hurrying to meet us.
My jaw tightened and my heart leapt. I continued through the gardens, gravel crunching crisply beneath my booted feet as we headed toward the far end. We approached the far end after a good walk, and I could see taller trees, but they were spindly and decoratively pruned, so as to not offer any visual barriers to the guards that patrolled the balconies of the second floor.
I could feel Nokomi growing close, ever so close, but the trees obscured my view. Dog whined beside me, feeling the same anxiousness that I felt. We shared a soul, he and I, so how could he not feel as I did?
Abruptly, I halted, Dog coming to heel beside me, sitting in the gravel at my right side. My hand reflexively went to his head, resting between his ears. His bristly hair was familiar and comforting against my palm and on my fingertips.
She was here at last, and my forehead burned feverishly. I caught scent of her at the same moment I saw her through the trees as she exited the palace. Her perfume carried to me, the same perfume I knew from that day in the market and from the handkerchief my instructors had used to play with my emotions back at the Kennel.
She took the steps two at a time, holding her skirts as she went. The two ladies-in-waiting beside her struggled to keep up. She skidded to a halt at the bottom of the stairs and her eyes widened at the sight of me, chest heaving. She was breathing heavily as if she’d just ran, but I felt the same way; I struggled to keep my breathing steady. Like two monumental forces coming together, we were finally staring at one another, and there was no one here to keep us apart. I’d waited most of my life for this. We took a measure of each other from a safe distance, some twenty paces perhaps.
What did she see when she looked at me? Did she still see my hazel eyes, green in the center and brown around the edges? I knew my skin was darker than it had been, from years in the desert sun, and I was certainly taller and heavier than the scrawny boy she’d known from the streets. My clothes, other than travel dusty, were certainly not the rags I’d worn the other two times she’d seen me. I had my adult height and size about me now, and I carried myself with confidence. I was not a scared kid hiding in alleyways any longer – I was a successful officer in her father’s army.
And her, even at this distance, I could see the warm, reddish-brown of her eyes that complimented the healthy glow of her skin, as set off by her silken gown and gauzy headscarf, both cream-colored but embroidered with tones of yellow, scarlet, and greenish-blue. If her scent was the same, her face was not. She had grown into her face and was certainly more stunning for it. Her eyes were surrounded by dark lashes that set off her large eyes, which were set to either side of her shapely nose. Her mouth was small, with lips of a lively red color, and a slight cleft on her chin only drew more attention to her well-balanced face. Her hair had been carefully braided into a complicated scheme that I wished to run my fingers over, exploring each delicate twist.
We began stumbling toward each other at the same moment, Dog at my side and her two attendants flanking her. She clutched once more at her silk skirts, gathering them in her fists so she would not trip over them as she approached. I blinked away the burning feeling that had spread all across my face and was threatening to sink down into my the muscles at the sides of my neck. My mouth felt dry as I crossed the last few steps to her.
I didn’t know what she was going to do before it happened, but her arms opened and we threw ourselves into an awkward hug. Her head went against my collarbone, and my chin fit perfectly on top of her head. I was certainly taller than her now, though I had not been years ago. Dog found her hand with his muzzle, and I could feel her smile against my chest as he licked her fingers.
“Goren.” She whispered softly, but my ears could easily hear it.
“I’d say that’s not my name, but it’s on my orders now, too.” I muttered.
She pushed herself back a hands width, keeping her arms around me still, so she could look up into my eyes and I into hers. I swam in those eyes for a long moment and a smile came across her face like the sun rising over the horizon. The burning in my face relaxed, replaced by a warmth that suffused through my whole body. I was acutely aware of her complicated scent, a mixture my nose interpreted as flowers, apricots, and honey, as well as the jasmine and bergamot musk of her hair.
I could have stayed in that moment forever, but her lips quirked into a smile and her eyebrow rose with curiosity.
“They made us all take people names.” I explained. “We couldn’t very well go by nicknames like: Scar, Legs, Killer, Mongrel, or Go. I needed a real name, so I took the one you gave me.”
Her lips parted in a smile. “I’m glad you kept it, that you remembered.”
“I remember everything about you, everything that ever happened between us.”
As I said this, I realized the impact our meeting was having on Nokomi’s two attendants, who were trying not to whisper and stare at the two of us, but failing. I smiled at the two of them, watching the prettier, shorter one of the two blush deeply and avert her eyes shyly.
Nokomi released me then, but kept a hand on Dog, fiddling with one of his round ears. “These are my handmaidens, Lila and Halina.” She indicated the shy one first, then the taller, dark-haired one with strikingly blue eyes second.
The two girls both curtsied quickly. They did it with precision, clearly a practiced gesture. “Sir.” They said together.
“And this is Captain Goren of the border guard, recently recalled on the orders of Minister Kalb.” She introduced me in turn.
“It is a pleasure to meet you both.” I said softly, smiling with genuine warmth.
I could smell the kindness on them. They were true friends of Nokomi, and I would treat them as such. With my senses enhanced by Dog, I could often get a scent of people, knowing more about them than even their body language would tell. I could smell lies or mixed truths as easily as I could smell the difference between fear sweat and of the sweat of exertion. There were many things that Dog’s shared senses allowed me to know about people, and these were two that I knew I could trust.
Nokomi knelt to give Dog more attention, which he accepted with great pleasure. He adored her as much as I did, and he was ever one for a good ear scratching. His tongue lolled out happily, and he licked her face. I found myself jealous in that moment, but I knew what her cheek tasted like to Dog through our bond. She’d eaten dates this morning. A tiny bit of sweetness remained on her lips and breath. I suddenly had the urge to eat dates, if only to understand her better.
Nokomi stood and sighed softly. “There is so much to catch up, on, my dear friend, Goren. We must make a point of having tea one day, so we can share stories of the past few years.”
“We must.” I agreed.
Dog yipped, making her laugh. She mussed the fur between his ears and grinned. “You can come, too, Dog.” She glanced up at me, and her eyes indicated that we were being watched.
“How do I…?” I wasn’t sure on the etiquette of meeting the princess and requesting an audience, even if it was just for conversation and a meal. I was suddenly aware of the other faces in the courtyard and on the balconies, many of which had taken note of our meeting. Of course, she’d grown up here, so she knew that her presence would attract attention.
“I’ll set it up. Halina or Lila will deliver the invitation.” Nokomi informed me, suddenly a lot more formal than she had been. Even she had been caught up in the moment.
I got the hint, and I bowed reverently, as was due for someone in my station. “Princess.” Dog grinned up at the two of us.
“Goodbye, Captain Goren.” She put extra emphasis on saying my name, which she’d given me.
I grinned and watched her retreat back toward the arched walkways. Halina cast a questioning glance back at me, her blue eyes curious but cautious. I inclined my head to her and knelt beside dog as they left. That one would definitely want to know more of my story. I imagined that she would have many questions for Nokomi.
I put my forehead against Dog’s muzzle, wrapping my arms around his shoulders. He turned to lick my face. I smiled and inhaled his familiar scent, feeling something I hadn’t felt for a long time.
“We are home.” I said to him at last.
He let out a soft whine of agreement, still staring at the walkway Nokomi had disappeared down.
National Novel Writing Month 2019: The Emperor's Dogs