I couldn’t sleep. Dog tossed and turned restlessly beside me, a mirror of my own uneasiness. Meeting with Legs should have left me feeling happier, not more unsettled. I had enjoyed catching up with him, reflecting on the past, even the sadder parts of it. Yet, I couldn’t help thinking about the future. That was what had me worried.
I began pacing, ignoring Dog’s whine when I made it impossible for him to sleep. Even in the dark and quiet, Dog would not sleep much if I was up and moving. In the dark, he met my gaze, and we both decided to go for a walk.
It was deep in the night, and much was quiet. The noises from neighboring houses had died hours ago. There was nothing but the whisper of our feet upon the gravel. I’d switched to quieter shoes instead of boots, and Dog knew how to move quietly. He was a wild animal, born for stalking and hunting prey, and I was able to draw on those skills to move more silently than a normal person could.
The sky was nearly cloudless, other than a few grey tufts that tried in vain to obscure the moon. The moon’s light seemed to split into four beams that formed a cross spreading through the grey sky. Dawn was perhaps two hours away, and there was little in the way of light around the palace, other than a few candles in windows or fires at guard stations placed periodically around the walls.
As there was little in the way of light, there was very little activity in the palace as well. I knew there’d be cooks already getting up to prepare morning meals soon, servants getting clothes ready for their masters’ days, and guards patrolling. Otherwise, there was only the silence of the sleeping city. In an hour, more would be stirring, but for now, Dog and I had the grounds to ourselves.
We slipped from building to building, moving within the shadows. I kept my eyes from any light sources, so I could preserve my night vision, which was sharp, nearly as sharp as Dog’s own, especially when I let the beast take my eyes and things came in more clearly.
That was a trick I’d learned in the years since I’d been at the Kennel. I’d honed my abilities so that I could allow my animal side to take just parts of my body at a time. I didn’t have to go all out. Instead, I could let my fingertips grow into claws while otherwise appearing human. Or, I could let my eyes take Dog’s abilities. I’d even grown my teeth once or twice, just for effect. In the right lighting or situation, having fangs and sharp ears could do much to intimidate or confuse an enemy. Often, that was all the time one needed to send a blade into their guts or running across their throat. Morbid thoughts for morbid times.
I smiled and drifted across the grounds, wandering in a direction I did not first understand, but should have. We reached the wall of the private lake garden, and I did not hesitate there. Dog knew what I planned, and probably had known before I knew it myself. He was a dog, not given to confusing inner dialogues and self-deceptions, so he knew the truth of things and how to live in the moment.
I knelt down, allowing Dog to get a running start. He easily vaulted up off of my shoulders and cleared the wall. It was not much for me to get over it myself. I only needed a couple steps back to get enough momentum, and then I leaped to the top of the wall, dropping back down on the other side without pause. A man standing on top of at wall gains attention, even in the middle of the night.
Dog and I hugged the inside of the wall, clinging to the shadows. No one could have seen us, not unless they had senses as keen as our own, and there were very few people in the palace grounds like us. Our steps brought us silently and swiftly to the pavilion where we’d taken tea with Nokomi.
Dog sniffed at the cushions and chairs, catching hints of her scent more recent than the last we’d met with her. There were other familiar scents mixed in as well, mostly of Halina and Lila, but also of the Empress Anahita.
My nose twitched at the scent of a man. I frowned, taking another deep pull of the scent. I did not know this one. It was not from Kalb or the Emperor. Unbidden, my mind conjured images of suitors fawning over Nokomi, taking meals with her and engaging in flattering discourse. I growled low in my throat. Dog just looked at me, as if to ask me what I was going to do about it.
In that moment, I believe I took leave of my senses. Sometimes that’s all it takes, just a single decision in a moment of weakness or strength.
I felt a tingle on the back of my neck, and I turned. There were candles lit in the royal residence. On a balcony along the lower dome, I saw wispy curtains part and a figure in pale bedclothes emerge. Lit by moonlight and a pair of flames on standing candelabras, I could just make out who it was.
Dog and I made for the walls. I led the way until we were close, and he ran straight for me. I gave him a leg up, tossing him easily over the walls. This time, I didn’t even bother to get a running start. I let my nature go and used claws to dig into the walls, pulling myself upward with ease. I made the top of the wall in mere moments and stood there, carelessly unworried about anyone noticing me this time. No, I wanted to be noticed, if only by her.
The tingle on the back of my neck deepened. It rose into my scalp until all of my hair felt as if it were standing on end. The hair on my arms rose, too, goosebumps forming on my arms, even if I was not the least bit cold.
Across the distance, our eyes met. I knew she’s seen me. She stood and waited, neither waving me off or beckoning me. I didn’t care. Meeting her gaze was invitation enough. I vaulted down from the wall and hit the ground running.
A taller wall surrounded the residence, ringing in the rounded building and its four corner towers. This wall was crenelated, with arrow slots and murder holes. They made great handholds for one such as I. Dog had little more trouble than I did. His paws found these spots perfect for boosting himself up to the next foothold, and we topped the wall, landing on its walkway.
Guards were patrolling this wall, but they were no more aware of us than they were the night birds that sailed overhead. I smiled, crossed the few paces of walkway, and descended the inside of the wall. Once I was at the bottom, Dog fearlessly leaped down to me. I caught him and lowered him to the ground.
We waited for the guards to complete their circuit, hiding in the shadows at the base of a tower. Then, we crossed the courtyard and came to a stop beneath Nokomi’s balcony. She looked down at us, not in surprise, but amazement. A grin crossed her face when I signaled for her to remain quiet.
I looked back and forth, finding plenty of handholds for me, but none that would suit Dog. I could easily scale the vines growing on the trellis to either side of her balcony. They were terrible planning in terms of security, I thought, but it worked for me. Clearly, they expected the other levels of defense to be unbreachable, so they did not worry if a flowering vine offered someone access to the royal residence.
Dog looked at me expectantly, and I nodded. It was easily twice my height to the bottom of the balcony, and the railing was chest high. I took a deep breath and grabbed Dog, one hand at the hindquarters, the other steadying him under his chest. A gasp escaped Nokomi’s eyes as she realized what I was doing. She looked to protest, but I didn’t give her the chance.
Taking a couple steps back first, I surged forward, heaving Dog up like a javelin, tossing him with all of my might. His legs pawed at the air as he sailed up and over the rail. He landed with the skittering of claws across the tiled floor.
Nokomi’s eyes were wide, and she bit her lip to hold off a scream. Laughing silently, I ran to the wall, pushing up off of it with my feet and springing upward. I grasped the bottom of the balcony near her feet and pulled myself up. I reached the top of the railing and swung my legs over, dropping softly onto the other side next to her.
“Go!” She hissed, eyes so beautifully wide and angry. But, it was the anger of fear, fear that something could have happened to us.
I shrugged and Dog yipped excitedly. “He likes it.”
“Dogs were not meant to fly.”
“It was more of a glide.” I replied, illustrating that fact with an arching motion of my hand. “Like these squirrels I once saw in my travels. They can glide safely down from a tree, or go branch to branch. They’re really quite amazing.”
She stared at my incredulously, crossing her arms over her chest. “And did you really just risk death and injury to sneak onto the princess’ balcony in the middle of the night to tell me about squirrels?”
My eyes narrowed, focusing on her face, looking away from the candle light and straight into her warm, inviting eyes. Her breath hitched, and I could see the rapid thrum of her pulse in her neck and the rise and fall of her chest beneath the linen sleeping gown she wore.
“Maybe.” I grinned wolfishly, suddenly aware of the heady scent of her hair, unbound and casting its scent into the light breeze. I’d never seen it hanging loose before, and I found that I liked the sight of it as it surrounded her face and fell down her shoulders in dark waves. I inhaled, closing my eyes for a moment.
“You are so strange.” She whispered, hand seeking out mine. Her pulse pounded in her fingertips. “Yet, I feel like I understand you.” Dog’s wet muzzle found her other hand. “Both of you.”
I pressed the back of her hand to my cheek. “It is because we are pack. We have been since that day so long ago.”
“Our blood mixed.” She said, understanding. Her fingertips worked their way across my jaw. “It is the way of my people. We can join others to us, so we always know what they are doing. We can share their feelings and know them deeply. It is only done with our most trusted friends and advisors.”
“It is the same with Dog and I. We share senses and thoughts.”
“And you are sharing with me, also. My own nose is sharper than before. I’ve noticed smells I never could have before you and Dog arrived. My eyes are sharper as well. I can see farther and more clearly in the dark.”
That surprised me. I’d always been able to feel her, but I’d never thought that one without the Old Blood could share the benefits of our bond. I marveled over that revelation and the scent of her skin. I found my teeth gently scraping at the back of her knuckles.
“We are pack.” She whispered, biting the inside of her cheek as I explored her wrist.
“That’s why I had to come.” I murmured against the inside of her arm. “I could not sleep, and I was unable to stop thinking about you, about your uncle’s return, and all of what it meant. I fear for your safety, and I am across the grounds. I did not know where you rooms were or how to get to you if you were ever in danger.”
“You certainly found me.” She laughed softly.
“And other scents I found in the places you frequent... They disturbed me.”
She withdrew her hand. “What do you mean?”
I yearned to have her hand back, but it was clenched at her side. “There was the smell of another man down at the pavilion. It was not Kalb and not your father.”
She looked at me with genuine confusion.
“I wondered if it was a suitor? I thought I was to be told of all of those meetings, but I must not have been told of one?” The words spilled jealously from my tongue. Dog eyed me in warning.
“That must have been Dastan. Other than my father or guards, he is about the only other man that ever goes there.” She said, perhaps a bit coolly.
“Dastan?” I had not yet heard this name.
“My sister’s betrothed. Neema’s consort-to-be.” Nokomi explained.
I stared at her for a long moment. She averted her gaze, looking uncomfortable as I studied her features. Dogs will do that, too, and it’s a habit I’ve picked up from them. They are not afraid to stare at a person for a long while, if it holds their interest or if they perceive it as a threat. Normal people will usually break my gaze first. They are uncomfortable with more than a few seconds of unbroken eye contact.
“Your sister is to be married?” I asked.
She nodded, taking the slightest step away from me. She rested her elbows on the railing and resumed her gaze out at the moonlit lake beyond the walls. “The marriage agreement was just formalized before you arrived, but the news has not yet been released. It was going to be released soon, but then my Uncle Navid arrived, and it did not seem like the proper time for such an announcement.”
Dog sat patiently, waiting for me to smooth things over. Somehow, I’d gotten off track, and he knew it. I’d went from a tender moment to a family discussion, and I wasn’t sure how to get back.
“How do you feel about that? I’ve not yet met your sister. I wonder about her and this man she has chosen.”
“Chosen?” Nokomi sniffed and turned her eyes my way. “Chosen for her is closer to the truth, although they do seem to genuinely like each other. Dastan is a sweet and gentle man.” She looked away, pursing her lips and frowning.
“How lucky for her.” I didn’t know what else to say. Her description of Dastan painted him as an exact opposite of me. What was I, but a beast in a man’s guise? I doubted that I’d ever been sweet or gentle.
“My sister could do worse.” Nokomi agreed.
“Nokomi…” I started, but had no words. I put my hands on the railing beside her, remembering our meeting at the pavilion.
She smiled sadly at me, but she did not put her hand on top of mine this time. “I know.”
I didn’t know what she knew. I didn’t know what I knew. Dog was probably the only one of the three of us that knew what he knew and how he felt. Unfortunately, I did not have the clarity he did, or the time to make things clear.
I heard a whisper of feet, and turned quickly to find Halina yawning as she regarded the two of us. I heard another sleeping deeper in the room, likely Lila.
“Mistress?” Halina asked questioningly, as if I might be a threat.
I felt a pang at that, a small stab of the heart. I eyed the other girl, wishing she’d not appeared.
“It’s fine, Halina.” Nokomi said tiredly. “Captain Goren was just leaving. Could take him down the north stairs and see him out?”
“Yes, mistress.” She continued to stare at Dog and I, clearly wondering how we’d gotten in without notice.
I stared at Nokomi, trying to meet her eyes once more. Perhaps my eyes would relay my truth where words had failed me. She chose not to look up at me though, turning away instead and walking to Halina’s side.
I looked at the two of them dressed alike in their sleeping dresses, so similar they might be sisters, but so different. Halina’s straight hair fell like a curtain, where Nokomi’s had a wave to it, curling near her ears and along her forehead. They were only a few finger widths difference in height, and Nokomi had slightly wider shoulders and hips, making her look older than Halina, despite being of a similar age.
Growling, I snapped my fingers and Dog came to my side. Halina’s eyes grew wide as she realized what I was about to do, but couldn’t believe it. I put my left hand on the rail and threw myself over it, landing just a moment later on the ground.
I backed up and snapped my fingers once more. There came the skittering of nails on tile once more, a stifled cry of surprise from Halina, and then Dog came sailing over the railing. I took another step back, gauging Dog’s trajectory. I dipped my arms as I caught him, so as not to jar him too sharply.
His round ears perked up and his muzzle broke into what could only be described as a dog’s grin. I shook my head, keeping a laugh to myself. Once more, we cast our eyes back toward the balcony to where the two women had been joined by a third, Lila.
The three women watched us disappear with different expressions on their faces: Halina’s full of wonder, Lila’s full of sleepy curiosity as to what she’d missed, and Nokomi’s full of sadness and longing.
The sky was lightening, and I had no more time. I needed to be with her, but our duties were conspiring to keep us apart. How long, too, before her Uncle worked to keep us apart?
Dog and I faded into the night, working our way unseen through the gates as the guard changed. It was exhilarating to sneak around, but that was a poor balm on my aching heart.
The two of us cast off into a fitful sleep for an hour before dawn, and then we got up to be about our duty.
National Novel Writing Month 2019: The Emperor's Dogs