I’d been assigned a small set of quarters in a small cluster of tiny homes for scribes that was located between the palace and the royal residence. There were eight of these little houses together in two rows of four, surrounded by gravel lanes and small shrubberies that did little to distract from the fact that these were small boxes, rooms with roofs for people just important enough to be close to the palace but not enough to have a fancy residence. I didn’t care. Dog and I had need for little more than a dry piece of ground to sleep on, as we’d often demonstrated in the last few years.
Still, it was mine for the time being, so we explored it, finding it suitable to our needs. There was one entry, a sliding wooden door that faced south. Two shuttered windows, one on the east side and one on the west, admitted enough light and fresh air to make it pleasant enough. A cot was placed in one corner of the single room, and a mattress had been placed on the stone floor, likely for Dog. A small table was against the north wall, along with a basin for washing up and a jug for drawing water. I’d seen a well not far from the little home, so getting water would be easy enough.
A simple writing desk stocked with writing supplies was on the wall beneath the eastern window, not that I planned to write many messages, but it would help maintain the idea that I was a scribe, of all things. A leather satchel for carrying ink, parchment, and quills had been left hanging on a peg beside the desk, along with a scribe’s uniform. I frowned at it, for the identity as a soldier was very much part of who I was. Perhaps the lie, the illusion of being a scribe would work in some situations, but I did not relish the thought.
It was not yet sunset, but it felt late. I searched a small shelf in the corner, finding tallow candles and a broom. Military life had left me with a tidy nature. I didn’t mind cleaning up after myself. That left only food to worry about. I could feel the pangs of hunger Dog was sending out.
The jug beside the wash basin already had water in it. I sniffed it, finding it clean enough to drink, and poured some in the basin for Dog. He lapped at it briefly, taking his fill. Afterward, I used it to wash the dust from my face, feeling grit fall away from my eyebrows and under my jaw. I dried my face on the towel provided, and glanced over at Dog, who gave me a look.
“This is home now.” I explained, not that I needed to.
He looked unimpressed and decided to explore the sleeping area. For a moment, I thought he’d take the cot and leave the mattress to me, but he settled onto the mattress after circling around on it twice. I snorted a laugh and shuffled over to fall beside him.
“I can’t believe we finally met her again. We waited years for this.” I smiled at the memories, and Dog licked my hand. “I know, right?”
I looked into his expressive eyes and tweaked one of his ears. He growled and bit at my hand playfully. That, of course, quickly became a wrestling match that ended up with both of us covered in hair and slobber, with me laughing and him panting and whining.
I was about to say something when I caught a scent of something through the western window, carried on the wind. Dog and I both turned that way, eyes narrowing. That was Nokomi’s perfume.
Had she sought us out so soon? I scrambled to my feet, realizing that I looked a mess. I hastily brushed the dog hair from my uniform, straightened my hair, and brushed some of Dog’s slobber from my forearm onto the back of my jacket.
Moments later, a knock sounded on the door. I shared an excited look with Dog and struggled to keep myself from running to the door. Instead, I walked at a careful, measured pace. I would meet her with decorum this time, greeting her properly this time.
I slid the door aside, my sharp ears picking up on the heartbeat on the other side of the door. I opened my mouth to offer my greetings, but the words died in my mouth as I found Nokomi’s handmaiden, Halina standing on my doorstep.
Her blue eyes were like chips of bright sky, and her mouth was holding back a smile, just barely. “Hello.”
“Halina.” I said softly, nodding my head for lack of knowing what the proper greeting for her was. I was unaware of her actual station, and she’d taken me by surprise.
“Captain Goren.” She reached over and plucked a tuft of dog’s fur from the front of my jacket, just on the ribs, where I’d overlooked it.
My nostrils took another hit of her perfume, or Nokomi’s perfume actually. It was on her wrists and the hollow of her throat. My hand snaked out, seizing her wrist, though not painfully. I drew in a breath along her skin. “You smell like her.”
Halina’s eyes registered surprise, even if her face did not. She carefully pulled her hand back. After a moment, she smiled warmly and tilted her head to regard me, as if she’d just realized something. I noticed that she was of a height with Nokomi, maybe even slightly taller, though her shoulders were a scant bit narrower. Given the right lighting, costume, and hair done right, she could almost be Nokomi’s double – except for the eyes. One would never mistake these crystal blue eyes for Nokomi’s warm coffee-colored eyes.
“And you smell like Dog.” She said ‘dog’ in such a way that seemed to indicate that she knew more about us than she’d let on in that first meeting.
How much had Nokomi told her of us? How much could she really? Today had only been our third meeting ever, and I doubted that Kalb told her much of my exploits, although she could have overheard conversations between the minister and her father.
Dog stepped forward to sniff at the hem of her skirts. I let him. We’d memorize Halina’s scent and use it to tell the two apart, even if she tried to disguise herself with Nokomi’s perfume. He finished sniffing, and I took in her scent through him. She had her own complex scent, not unpleasant at all, but it was not Nokomi’s.
When Dog settled back on his heels, I asked her, “What can I do for you?”
“I have an invitation for you.” She announced cheerfully.
I held out my hand, waiting for the invitation to be handed over.
She laughed musically, her cheeks dimpling attractively. “Do you think that the princess commits such things to paper? Now let me in so I can offer you the particulars.”
I frowned at her, but stood aside for her to enter. She stared at me expectantly, and I realized she wanted me to close the door, so I did so. Kalb’s words about being careful and circumspect in my public dealings came to mind. Talking to one of the princess’ handmaidens in my open door could certainly draw unwanted attention. I doubted that many scribes did such a thing.
With the door closed, Halina reached out and put a hand on my chest. I looked at the hand in confusion. Her eyes not leaving mine, she settled in against my chest as Nokomi had done just a few hours ago. She closed her eyes, her long lashes fluttering shut, and she reached to pull my face down toward hers. Her scent confused me, so close to Nokomi’s and yet not.
She was playing with me, testing me. I could feel it, and I didn’t care for it. I growled, took her by the shoulders, and thrust her an arm’s length away from me.
Halina’s eyes were suddenly wide open once more, and her hand went to her mouth. “Your eyes!”
I blinked and turned away. They’d gone yellow. I knew what she had seen.
“So it is true, the rumors about Captain Goren and his special soldiers.” She looked at Dog with new understanding, but he regarded her cautiously. “I thought the princess was making up stories…”
“Why are you here?” I demanded.
She blinked. “To deliver an invitation. The princess wishes to take a meal with you, four days hence.”
“And this test? Was this also her plan?”
She smiled. “That was all my idea. I saw what passed between you and Nokomi. You are like two old lovers, but you only knew each other as children. Your bond is something special, and I wanted to see what it was.”
My forehead throbbed suddenly. I massaged it with my fingertips. “What we have is different. You could not understand.”
“I’d like to.” She offered, placing her hand gently on my wrist. When had she moved back to my side?
“But you can’t.” I replied simply.
I was starting to regard this encounter as a military exchange. She was probing me for weakness. She was getting a measure of me. Dog wanted to get to know her better, in the manner of dogs, but the wrestling and sniffing that would require was not something I was about to engage in.
“Too bad.” She inhaled deeply and let it go with a sigh. “Do you have an answer for her then?”
I remembered Kalb’s warning and the Empress’ request. Even so, I couldn’t bring myself to say no to Nokomi. I would have to find a way to balance things, to keep everyone happy. “I will meet her, whenever and wherever she requests.” I answered quickly.
“There is something between you two, and I will figure it out.” Halina smiled the smile of one who enjoys puzzles and mysteries.
I shrugged. “Perhaps.”
“We will see each other again, Captain Goren.” Halina promised, and I had a feeling she meant it. The only question was would Nokomi be with her when she arranged our next meeting?
Dog and I watched her leave. She slid the door closed behind her, leaving the two of us alone once more. I wondered how close she’d been to drawing her knife after she saw my eyes change.
We stared at the closed door for a long moment, at least until Dog’s stomach growled. A moment later, mine did, too. We were bonded, the two of us.
We went searching for food with the perfume still tingling in our noses.
National Novel Writing Month 2019: The Emperor's Dogs