Four days passed with surprising swiftness and also with agonizing slowness.
I used every spare moment to memorize the layout of the palace, which four days was not nearly enough time to do. Kalb’s signet ring allowed me access to most areas in the main palace, but there were so many outbuildings, small gardens, and walled-off areas that I just could not memorize them all so swiftly. Only time would fully allow me to acclimate myself to this new place. For now, I had to settle with knowing the major landmarks and areas, while learning the smaller details as I went.
Except, would I even have the time I needed? Kalb required me to know the ins and outs of the entire palace complex if I was to be able to sneak about and carry out his will. On the third day, he showed up at my small home in the middle of the night and made me draw the entire palace in accurate scale, at least what I could remember of it, from memory.
He did not let on if he was impressed or unimpressed by what I’d managed to learn thus far, although he smiled briefly at the fact that I’d found and labeled no less than twelve places to take a meal. What could I say? My nose and stomach drove me, and it was the memories of certain smells, sounds, and tastes that helped me remember what I knew so accurately. Each thing I associated with a sense became more concrete in my mind.
I knew that there was a specific type of jasmine incense used by one of the advisors in the western hallway. I knew which guard stations served the best food and the strongest liquor, by both taste and smell. There was a lovely assistant to the head scribe that always smelled like him, as well as sandalwood candles. One of the gardens had flowering lemon trees. I knew all these things and more, because our senses drove us.
Just before midday on the fourth day, Halina reappeared, once more alone at my door. I recognized her heartbeat, not her scent. This time, she smelled of almonds and cream. Her skin was particularly savory-smelling and supple-looking in the morning light.
“Do you like it?” She asked, and her eyes twinkled as my nose twitched at her new scent.
“It is pleasant.” I offered neutrally, while Dog sneezed beside me, his tail wagging happily. “What of Nokomi? Where is she?”
“Follow me.” That was all she said, but she sounded disappointed.
Dutifully, I followed with Dog at my side as she led into another walled section of the palace grounds that I’d not yet had a chance to explore. We walked to the north side of the royal residence, where we found another walled-in area that was nearly the side of the courtyard that the officials and folk of the palace enjoyed. This one was more exclusive, meant only for the royal family and those they entertained.
This private area was mostly dominated by a lake that was clearly man-made - its edges were so straight and even, and its depth was so uniform. A large pavilion sat on the southern shore, within eyesight of the two northern towers of the royal residence, as well as the tall turret atop the domes. There were two small islets in the lake, each not much bigger than the footprint of my modest little home. Each held a flowering tree, a few spindly shrubs, and a collection of water birds that spooked when Dog barked at them from the shore.
I stopped and stared, dumbfounded by the expanse of water that stood before me. Living in the alleys as a child, I’d never seen much more than a puddle after a rainstorm or a public fountain for drawing water. At the Kennel, I remember marveling over a bathing room that held a pool of water barely a fraction the size of this lake. Even in my travels as a soldier, I’d never beheld more than a watering hole in the desert or a narrow riverbed, more often running with mud than clear water. Yet here was a mass of water that was simply staggering to me.
Halina smiled to watch me stare. “Your mouth is hanging open. Have you never seen a lake before?”
I glanced at her, shaking my head before turning back to the lake. I knelt at its edge and put my hand into it. Dog sniffed at the water beside me and lapped at the warm water.
“Dogs will drink anything.” Halina remarked without judgement.
“Some people, too.” I slurped a handful of water just to get a rise out of her. My stomach was quite sturdy, and I had no fear of the water making me sick.
Halina winced at my choice of refreshment and nodded toward the pavilion on the edge of the lake. “Nokomi is waiting, with tea. It tastes much better than pond water.”
“Lead on.” I suggested, standing once more. Water was interesting, but Nokomi was much more interesting.
My eyes went to the pavilion, where I could make out Nokomi reclining on a bench beside a table filled with dishes. Lila stood beside her, waiting patiently for Halina to return with me. The sound of them talking filtered across the water to my ears, but I could not make out what they said, at least not until we got closer.
Lila noticed our approach first, although I believe that Nokomi felt us arrive before she indicated that she knew we were here. Just as I felt my forehead flush, I knew that she would know of my presence without having to see or hear us. Dog whined excitedly, feeling her nearby.
Now that we were all well aware of each other, I saw Nokomi stand and look our way. She waited there patiently, allowing us to approach this time. I’ll admit that I was a little disappointed that she didn’t rush over to throw a second embrace our way, but I understood it. She had a level of decorum to maintain. I was a soldier, and she was the princess.
“Princess Nokomi.” I sketched a bow upon arrival, ascending the three steps quickly to be near her.
“Captain Goren.” Nokomi was decidedly cool, but beautiful regardless.
I kept trying to meet Nokomi’s gaze, but her eyes kept slipping away. I felt a pang, but tried not to let it show. I cast a look Halina’s way, but her face was a careful mask, though I knew she was observing me.
At least Nokomi greeted Dog enthusiastically when he crossed the distance between us. He enjoyed the attention, startling the timid Lila as he barked excitedly and set his tail to smacking the poor handmaiden on the legs. Lila let out a little shriek and backed away, falling onto a cushioned lounge. I smiled, but took Nokomi’s cue to not be too forward, and decided to take a look around instead.
The pavilion was about fifteen paces on a side and perfectly square. About half of it was built over the water, with pilings sinking down into the clear water toward piles of white stones on the bottom of the lake, which was about half again as deep as I was tall. The water was clear and pleasant-looking, with fish swimming around placidly.
A waist-high railing ran around the whole pavilion, except where the stairs on the southern side allowed entrance to the covered area. Each of the balusters that connected the floor to the rail had been carved to look like different water birds or fish. Every piece of wood gleamed with the oils that had been worked into the grains of the wood, preserving it from the weather and sun. The structure was well-made, with careful joints and clean lines. Even the rafters above me were masterfully joined and kept clean of bird nests.
“Do you like it?” Halina asked. “The birds, the fish, the calm water… It is very calming.”
I looked at her, watching Nokomi watching us out of the corner of her eyes. Was she doing all the talking on purpose? Was this what it would mean to be close to Nokomi? Would we forever be talking through someone, rather than to each other?
“It is a wonder, this place. I have never seen so much water.” I moved to railing at the edge of the pavilion, past the sitting area and the food and drink assembled on the table.
Dog scampered over and stuck his face between the balusters. He barked at the fish he saw in the water, that or his reflection upon the glassy water. Dog and I stood there for a long moment, saying nothing.
“It is one of my favorite places in this whole cage we call a home.” Nokomi said with no small measure of sadness in her voice as she took a place a few paces away along the railing on our right.
“It was a wonder that I was allowed in the palace the other day to greet you.”
“Her mother scolded her.” Halina whispered into my left ear quietly, smirking until Nokomi shot her a warning glance. Halina retreated to Lila’s side.
I stood at the rail, hands on the smooth wood, taking the soft breeze upon my face, cooling the soft burn I felt from both the sun and Nokomi. “I understand duty, princess.”
“I suppose you do, after all of these years…”
Nokomi was suddenly right beside me, looking out across the water. Her eyes stayed on the nearest of the small islands, where birds with long, curved beaks stalked the water’s edge, looking for minnows or other small food. I watched them also, until I felt something brush against my hand.
I swallowed and looked down at her hand, resting upon the railing, palm up and ever so slightly touching mine. I saw a small white scar upon her palm from the same cut that had leaked its blood into my forehead, bonding us together as children. Our eyes met.
My throat tightened. My skin felt aflame. That cool burn that had been contained to my face was now raging through my veins. I felt heat from her skin pour across the narrow space between us. Dog suddenly sat very alert between us, looking up at our faces.
“What did my mother ask of you?” Nokomi whispered, knowing I could not keep the truth from her when I was lost in her eyes.
“She wanted me to spy on your suitors. I’m to protect you from them, but also observe and offer my opinions of them to her.” I whispered back.
I did not feel that I was betraying either Kalb or the Empress. Nokomi and I were pack, and my allegiance was ever to her first, and others later. I would never harm her.
“And my father?” She asked.
“He asked me to do what Kalb wishes of me in order to protect and serve your family.” I answered. I swallowed and asked the question that tickled at my tongue. “And what would you ask of me, princess? How can I serve you?”
Nokomi took a breath the speak, but stopped. Her brow wrinkled in consternation. She licked her lips, thought better of it, and broke away from my eyes.
I heard a clatter of dishes behind us. Halina and Lila were very much watching us, but they made a show of setting up tea. The tea had already been set up before, so it was clearly just something to keep their hands busy.
Nokomi placed her hand atop mine, and I turned back to her in surprise. “I would have you be a true friend to me, Go.”
“Always, princess.” I smiled. “It is what I have always wished since the day we met. It is what I have worked all these years to get back to you for.”
Her earlier anxieties faded, and she warmed me with one of her rarest smiles, one of those that lit up the day. She led me over to the sitting area, and the four of us spoke at length of palace life, of the places I’d seen in my travels, and of her family.
Lila spoke at length only once, retelling a story that had both the princess and Halina laughing until they clutched at each other with tears in their eyes and could hardly breathe. Lila spoke rarely, but she had a keen eye for detail and was a great study of a person’s traits and habits. She could imitate people and tell a story in such a detailed manner that made you feel as if you’d been there.
Dog dined on bread and treats that the girls fed him, teaching him a trick where he held a scrap on his nose for as long as he could, and then he had to snap it up before it hit the ground. He put up with their little game, because it was the most attention he’d had in weeks, as well as some of the best little pieces of meat either of us had ever tasted. I’d never known him to be such an attention-hog, and I feared he would be spoiled by our time in the palace, but I let him get away with it.
When the meeting was over, the midday meal bells had long since rung, and we left with a promise to meet again sometime soon. Dog and I retreated to our home, memorizing the layout of this new piece of the palace grounds, but palace maps were not so memorable as the tingling reminder of Nokomi’s hand upon on my own.
National Novel Writing Month 2019: The Emperor's Dogs