If I thought that those moments with Nokomi would quickly lead to more, I was wrong. At least, there were no more invitations during the rest of the week or the next, not even over the weekends. Perhaps my novelty had worn off? I’d seen Halina once or twice, possibly following me, but she maintained her distance, and I was careful to give no indication that I knew she was following me.
Instead, Dog and I worked the palace grounds, sometimes as a soldier with a dog, other times as a scribe without. Dog made it harder to go unnoticed, so we practiced separation, with him hiding where he could, sitting in wait in an empty room or an unoccupied corner of this garden or that one. Even with some separation, we could still feel one another, and my more acute senses did not fade as long as I kept some part of my mind focused on our bond. Even if we had been separated by enough distance to affect our bond, my senses and reflexes were still far beyond those of a normal human.
We worked and learned until the weekend, which brought to mind the market days from my childhood, when I’d worked for Adish. He’d given me my week’s pay on the sixth day of the week, allowing me to spend my money as I pleased on the end days of the week, days seven and eight. I’d learned the value of money, ate some delicious grilled rat, and explored the shops with Dog.
How I longed to go back into the city and wander the labyrinth of tents, booths, and stalls. It was a simple pleasure to wander among so many sights, sounds and smells. There was some small, mundane version of the market put on in the palace courtyard for the sake of the officials and palace staff who could not bother to go to the markets or the Grand Bazaar, but it was such a pale imitation that I cared little to explore it, except to study the people, and even that I cared little for.
Instead, Dog and I spent our second weekend reporting our findings to Kalb, who similarly shunned such gatherings, even more so as he aged. I returned to his offices, as before, and we spoke at length.
“I understand you took tea with the princess the week past.” Kalb remarked casually, but there was more than a hint of accusation in his tone.
I shrugged. That was not something I would deny, especially when he already knew the truth. “I will not refuse a summons.”
“Nor should you.” Kalb agreed, but he still eyed me with suspicion.
I smiled affably and took a direct tactic. “What is it that you really want to say, Kalb?”
“I understand the allure she must hold for you. You are bonded, and you are both so young and idealistic… and she is beautiful.” He watched me for a reaction.
I said nothing, allowing him to continue.
Kalb frowned at me, and Teeth shifted uneasily, feeling Kalb’s discomfort at the subject being discussed. “You do realize she is meant for another, right?”
“Yes. It has been explained to me at least twice.”
“And that means that no matter how close you get to her, no matter how you feel about her, you will never be the one for her. Even if you somehow managed to capture her heart, her body and her position as princess – those would belong to another.”
I flashed my teeth at him. Dog growled at the truth being offered so plainly to us. Kalb may say what he wanted, but I knew how her hand upon mine had felt.
“See? You have thought of it. I know that the Empress requested that you observe her interactions with suitors, several of which have just arrived. She will become the wife of another, and you will have to smile and guard her even as she marries another man, bears his children, and has a family without you.”
“Why are you saying all of this?” I hissed.
“Because you need to understand where you stand in this, foolish boy. It gives me no pleasure, but do you think I cannot see how you look at her?” He shook his head sadly. “It is natural at your age to feel such things. Your bond with her makes it even harder. You feel more of her than you should. Women are supposed to be mysterious – that is their nature – but part of her soul will always be bared to you, because of that bond you share. Yet, even with that bond, you two can never be together.”
“It must have been easier for you then to be bonded to the Emperor then, and not the Empress.” I replied sharply. “How would that have been for you?”
“I don’t know. It never happened, and I am happy that it never did, because I never had to deal with that test.” He wasn’t going to worry about hypotheticals. He’d lived too long a life to worry about such things.
“But you never became anything more than his guard and his minister. What of your life, Kalb? You have gifts and talents, the things granted by your Old Blood nature. Why was that never passed on to children? Couldn’t your own offspring serve the Emperor? Why not indenture your bloodline in perpetuity? How has he not demanded that of you?”
“Who is to say what I have done?” He demanded, a true look of anger upon his bearded face. “What do you know of my life, Go? Other than the few weeks we’ve spent together over these years, what do you know? I may have taught you all I know of being a beast, but what have you really learned of me?”
I stared at him, shocked. I’d never considered him as a father. Dog stirred at my side, looking at Kalb with new consideration. “And do you have children, Kalb?”
“My life is my own. It is of no concern of yours.” It sounded like a confirmation, even if he wouldn’t say it.
“And mine? What is my life to be? And what if she decides that she wants me as more than a guardian?” I asked.
It was a hope and a dream. I’d watched my fellow soldiers, dogs and boys like me, as they’d interacted with the women we’d come across in our tours across the land. I’d understood what they did and how they acted, but it had never been for me. Dog and I had always been apart, not matter how close we seemed to our peers at meals and on the battlefields. There was something that kept us separate, and that something was Nokomi. I realized that I’d always been waiting for her. I’d never be able to give myself to another, not while I was bonded to her.
Kalb shook his head sadly, feeling pity for one as naïve as myself. “A princess is a bargaining chip in a kingdom, Go. Her life is no more her own than yours is. She is not her own to give to anyone. A touch, a stolen kiss… no more could come of such things, nothing more than pain.”
“There is more. We could be more.”
“But you won’t.” He insisted.
“Would you stand in our way if that was what she wanted?” How that would test his loyalties. Even if he’d softened in his old age, would he ever defy the Emperor’s wishes for his daughter?
“Would you defy the Emperor, the Empress, the duty of a princess to her nation, and the entire kingdom by yourself?” Kalb asked, and something in his eyes feared my answer. He did not want to be put at odds with me. He needed me, and he didn’t want to have to fight me.
In that moment, I didn’t care. I could only be honest. “I would do whatever she asked of me. Anything. Everything. We are pack.”
Kalb snorted. “Foolish children. You don’t know what you say.”
“Maybe, but I know what I want, and that is for me to be what she wants me to be, whatever that is. I cannot deny her.”
Kalb leaned forward in his chair, eyes glowing yellow. “And if it is just a servant or guardian she wants you to be, will you be satisfied with that?”
I met his gaze defiantly, challenging him. “I will have to be. I live to serve her.” My words might have sounded sure, but the twist in my guts made me realize I would not be. We were pack, and I would do what I could for her, but even I had my limits.
“Then start serving her by being at the gates at dawn. Serve her by watching her uncle’s return.”
“General Navid is coming here?” I paused. I had not seen the man for many months, and I’d never met him in anything more than passing.
Kalb nodded. “He arrives tomorrow. He could have easily arrived today, but that man’s pride would not allow him to arrive on a market day. He will not have competition for his ‘triumphant’ return.”
“Triumphant? What has he triumphed over? We are not at war.”
“Are you certain?” Kalb gritted his teeth and tugged at Teeth’s scruff. Teeth grumped at him, but endured it. “You recall the map that the Emperor was looking over when you arrived?”
“It’s changed. Despite orders, General Navid took it upon himself to take Saluud from the Kingdom of Arven, along our eastern border. He claims it was to secure a better deep water port for our kingdom, so we no longer have to pay them for shipping rights, but it was more likely for his own glory. The Emperor is furious, and he has called him back.”
“The timing is curious, with the Empress pregnant.”
“Indeed.” Kalb stood, going to a wall where an older map was hung between two tapestries of dogs hunting. “That’s why I want you there. I need you to shadow him. Learn what you can of him.”
“You think he’s the one.”
Kalb turned to face me, his face grave and serious. “Never say that aloud again, even if you think you are only in my company. Things have a way of being heard when we least expect them to be.”
“Get out of here, and try not to let your passions put you at odds with your mission, Go.”
“That sounds strikingly like fatherly advice.” I remarked, unable to resist taunting him just a little.
“If you were my child, I would beat some sense into you.” There was a slight smile with that threat, but the flash in his eyes told me that he still thought he could beat me in a fight.
I wasn’t so sure. “Do you think you still could?” Dog nipped at my hand, as if to warn me to shut my mouth.
Teeth sat up and Kalb growled at me, with at least a hint of genuine anger. “Get out of here, and be at the gate tomorrow.”
National Novel Writing Month 2019: The Emperor's Dogs