Kalb regarded me and gave a gruff bark that was something between reproach and greeting.
After meeting the princess, I’d proceeded into the palace, leaving behind the pleasantness of the courtyard to find my way through the labyrinth of passages to the offices of Minister Kalb. If Dog and I had less keen senses of smell, we’d likely have had to ask directions a dozen times, but we knew Kalb’s smell very well.
As one of the Emperor’s advisors, he maintained his own meeting rooms within the palace. This was one of such rooms. It was spartan in style, lacking comforts that he did not require. Kalb was a hard man, and it would unnerve most visitors who expected opulence from an important advisor, not a hard, militaristic aesthetic.
I cared little of his décor and much about what he would say. I knew he was not truly angry with me, no matter how gruff his front was. Even so, his yellow eyes were still piercing, even with the cataracts that were beginning to cloud them. At his side, his massive dog, Teeth, was licking his chops.
Teeth was easily one of the largest dogs I’d ever met, and I’d met a lot. I could only think of one or two other dogs near his size. He was thick and heavily muscled with a thick coat of short, dark hair and even thicker skin. He was easily as heavy as a grown man, heavier than most, and twice as strong. I’d seen his teeth puncture pieces of plate mail once or twice. His canines had sunk into flesh even through leather and metal gauntlets.
“Sir… or should I call you minister?” I inclined my head respectfully to my closest teacher.
“Go.” Kalb said my true name, not the one I’d taken in an affectation of a civilized man. “Your little stunt out there greeting the princess will not go unnoticed. There are eyes on her at all times. Now, you will be of interest.”
I nodded. Clearly our meeting had not gone unnoticed if he’d already heard of it. It didn’t surprise me that one of the Emperor’s closest advisors had spies in the palace. It probably would have surprised me if he hadn’t heard of my meeting with the princess. It just meant he was doing his job in watching over the royal family, and I knew from our years of association that he took that duty with full seriousness.
“The blue-eyed girl, Halina. She carries a knife.” I remarked.
Kalb grunted and settled heavily into his chair, an old piece of furniture that was well-worn around the arms. “And she knows how to use it. The girls I put at the princess’ side are more than just pretty faces that know how to serve tea.”
“Good.” I meant it. Her safety meant everything to me. We were pack. “I take it I will also be set to protecting her?”
Kalb waved me closer. I approached one of the hard-backed chairs that was arranged in a semicircle in front of him, but chose to stand instead. Kalb noticed my reluctance to sit.
“You’re a beast, Go, more comfortable in the wilds than in places more civilized.” He observed.
“I know.” I admitted. Dog gave his best impression of a human grin. If he could have smiled, he would have.
“It was not a judgement. I understand it well. You have no idea how often I wish to tear my clothes off and run wild in the sand and scrublands, away from these careful streets and the unpleasant complexities and niceties of palace life. How I wish to run with the dogs, to hunt and kill with my teeth.” Kalb sighed, sharing a look with Teeth, who clearly echoed his sentiments.
“But you have responsibilities that make such a simple existence impossible…” I offered.
“That’s part of it. The other part is getting old.” Kalb answered. “Do you know how old I am?”
I shrugged, but knew he wanted an answer. I took in the grey in Kalb’s beard and the deep lines creasing his forehead and the corners of his eyes. His hands, too, looked old. The knuckles were redder and more swollen than I remembered. “Sixty-five?” I guessed.
Kalb laughed. “Do I look so bad as that? I am only forty-six, Goren. We age quickly, as a balance to our dogs living longer.”
There was some truth to this. I knew that most dogs only lived perhaps a dozen years, maybe eighteen at the most. Yet all of the men I’d trained had been with their dogs for five to ten years, some even longer, and their dogs still moved with the vigor of youth, as if they were only three to five years old.
“There is so much shared in our bonds, Go. We share scents, thoughts, and feelings. We gain the strength and speed of the beasts, and they gain some of our intelligence. Our lives are also shared, as a measure of our lifespans are given to the dogs, keeping them alive with us. The trade-off is that we cannot live as long, but would we wish to live longer without our dogs beside us?”
“No.” I answered without hesitation, feeling the truth in my answer. Dog pressed his muzzle against my leg reassuringly.
“Time, Go. I’m running out of time, but our enemies won’t relent when I’m gone.” Kalb announced, clenching his hands into fists.
I’d never heard Kalb speak this way. He was always wary, protective, and dedicated to his path. Now, a bit of self-pity was creeping into his voice, but it came from a deep need to do his duty, something he seemed to feel he was becoming incapable of doing.
“What do you need of me, sir?”
“Emperor Baraz’s wife is pregnant.”
“Empress Anahita is having another child?” My mind whirled with the possibilities.
“It’s a boy.” Kalb whispered, just loud enough for me to hear. Even if our meeting was being listened upon, no one except one with the hearing of a dog would have been able to hear his words just then.
“How do you know?”
Kalb smiled toothily under his beard, amused that I would question him. “It is the way of their people, the fire-blooded. A woman of the New Blood knows.”
That meant a lot of things. Emperor Baraz had two daughters, Neema, his eldest girl, and Nokomi, the younger one. Neema’s consort, when she took one, would be well-positioned to make a move on the throne, but Baraz’s brother had a stronger claim on the throne.
General Navid was an ambitious man, a pragmatic sort. I’d met him once or twice, mostly by accident, and always after a battle. He might not have known who or what I was, but I knew exactly who he was. He looked much like his brother, but taller, with a hawkish nose and a hard glint about his eyes.
Except, with a boy on the way, what would that mean for the line of succession? Even as a younger sibling, this baby would be the firstborn male in the line. His claim would take precedence. Even if something happened to Emperor Baraz, the girls would help raise him until he came of age. He would be the Emperor-in-waiting with the Empress or one of his older sisters serving as regent.
I chewed on that for a moment, and Kalb saw the realization settle in.
“So you see why you were recalled from the dusty edges of our land and brought back to a place where you might be used more usefully?” He asked.
“What I did there was important.” I protested weakly.
Kalb favored me with a smile. “It was a delay, a chance to keep you out of the scenes for as long as I could, Go. Now, I have no choice. I needed someone here I could trust.”
“There are others…”
Kalb shook his head. “None like us, as you well know.”
Of the hundred or so dogs and boys I’d met, none were so close to the beast as Kalb and I. Others could take on some aspect of the beast, growing taller, becoming stronger, and perhaps even producing slightly elongated teeth or some simple sort of claws, but that was as far as they could go. Kalb and I, we were different. We could let the beast take control, becoming creatures that were neither man nor dog, but somewhere between the two.
I took a breath and met his eyes. “What would you have of me? Of us?”
“I had you stationed far away to keep your nature secret from those who should not know what we do. Now, you’re going to be my eyes and ears in the palace, my knife where it is needed. You cannot play these roles if you call too much attention to yourself. You must be circumspect in your actions, and you must be present without being noticeable.”
“Sir.” I nodded in acknowledgement. These things I could be, so long as they brought me near Nokomi, and so far it had.
“However,” Kalb favored me with a sad look, “I know this will be hard for you to hear, but I must insist that you stay away from the princess, as much as you can do so without slighting her.”
He waved a hand, cutting off my response. Dog growled, but Teeth growled louder, not that it made Dog back down.
“They can’t know of your connection. We serve the Emperor. We must protect his interests, and that means his whole family, not just Nokomi.”
“What you need, I will do.” I agreed reluctantly. He hadn’t said I could have no contact with her. I just needed to let her initiate it, or meet in secret, away from prying eyes and ears.
“Good.” Kalb relaxed visibly. “You must understand that with the news of this new child, the risk of attack has grown infinitely. I fear that our enemy’s patience will grow very thin. He will make a move, and in his haste, I hope he will finally expose himself.”
“And if he does, what do we do?”
“We tear his throat out to protect the ones we love, Go.” Kalb grinned ruthlessly.
I nodded. “We tear their throats out, sir. Every last one of them, no matter who they are.”
Kalb slid from his chair. He walked down to cast his arms around my shoulders. “I am glad you are home, Go. There is so much to do, and I fear we will not be able to do enough. We cannot fail.”
He was my most trusted teacher, and while I did not love him as I did Adish, who had been a very brief father figure to me, I did feel some affection toward the yellow-eyed man. He was the closest thing I had to a peer, the only one who understood what I was, what we were.
“Your eyes, ears, and your knife. I will be them all.” I promised him, meaning every word of it.
Dog growled in agreement, making a similar vow to Teeth, who barked in response.
National Novel Writing Month 2019: The Emperor's Dogs