Neema was very much like her sister and yet so very different at the same time.
Neema was taller than Nokomi, although it was yet to be seen if that would hold true forever. Nokomi was certainly taller now than I remembered her, but at eighteen or nineteen years of age, I did not know if she’d reached her full height yet. She likely had, but one never knew. Still, I suspected that Neema would always be at least a little taller than her sister, if slighter of build.
Truthfully, Halina and Neema looked more like sisters than Nokomi and Neema did, except in the eyes. Neema had those same warm eyes as Nokomi, brown with a hint of red, the color of melted chocolate or warm coffee with the sun shining through it.
I would not be unfairly partial to Nokomi if I said that she was prettier than Neema, since most would find Nokomi’s features more pleasing to the eyes. Neema was attractive in her own way, but she paled in comparison to her younger sister, who seemed to grow more beautiful by the day. Neema was intelligent-looking, with observant eyes and a narrow mouth that only opened after she carefully considered her words. Her face was a bit long, and she had a prominent nose, taking more after her father than her mother. Nokomi, on the other hand, had much of her mother’s look about her face, sharing her elegant bone structure and delicate features.
Neema moved with grace, making her a careful presence in any room. Her steps were as light and careful as her words, and her betrothed, Dastan, doted upon her. When his full attention was upon her, she glowed, becoming more attractive. It was strange to watch the two of them together, shining in each other’s presence.
As an official, if yet unannounced, intended husband to the princess, Dastan was allowed into the royal residence for his visits with Neema. Of course, they were still supervised, mostly. Neema was too careful to let anything untoward occur anyway, or so Halina had explained to me.
This was only my second time in the royal residence, but it was my first visit on official business. Uninvited incursions onto the princess’ balcony in the deep hours of the night were generally not considered official business. I smiled, thinking about that. Kalb probably knew of it, seeing as he knew almost everything that happened around the palace. As of yet, he’d chosen not to punish me or confront me about it.
The sitting room we were meeting in was on the ground floor of the royal residence. Generally speaking, outsiders never went above the first floor. Dog and I had already violated that rule apparently.
The room was richly and comfortably decorated. Mosaics had been painted on the walls, scenes of deserts blooming, oases, and studies of wildlife. Dog and I even found a hunting dog like him hiding in a corner of one painting. It was a small detail, but we appreciated his inclusion. We studied the layers of painting, wondered if it had always been there, or if it had been added afterward.
Dozens of potted plants, ferns and flowering shrubs mostly, had been placed around the room to make it feel more lush and peaceful. Water trickled in a fountain to one side, offering more privacy with its gentle noise. A ring of chairs and benches with woven cushions surrounded the fountain, with small round tables placed between them for refreshments.
Neema sat beside Dastan on one bench, hands close but not quite touching. She was beaming at him as he told her a simple story of his morning, something apparently humorous but otherwise commonplace. I didn’t understand the point of the tale, but the two were all looks, smiles, and teeth as he retold the events. It was foolishness, but I found myself unable to stop watching them.
Neema had her own handmaiden, Kamaria, sitting on the bench next to her. She was a somewhat homely girl with an infectious laugh, wide hips, and a prodigious bosom. She covered her mouth with her dainty hands when she laughed, which was frequently and loudly. Everyone liked her instantly, because she had a disarming manner that made her quite easy to like. Dastan’s manservant had certainly taken to her, if his eyes and heartrate were any indication.
“They are something, aren’t they?” Nokomi asked, coming up beside me.
“Kamaria and Dastan’s man?” I asked facetiously. I cracked a smile.
Nokomi frowned at me, shaking her head.
“They are at peace with each other. I envy them.” I admitted, trying hard not to look too long at the gauzy layers of fabric that surrounded Nokomi. They surrounded her like morning mist, disguising but not fully hiding her figure.
Nokomi cast a glance sideways at me, studying my face. I met her gaze. She did not look down or away, as Halina had started to do since learning my true nature. Nokomi was the only one who met my gaze, other than Kalb or the Emperor and Empress. Even many of the other boys from the Kennel, like Legs and the others, had learned to avert their eyes. It was a dominance thing, and they instinctively looked aside first so as not to challenge me. Nokomi wasn’t that way, and I loved it about her.
“It’s the little things…” I explained in a tone just above a whisper, nodding back at Neema and Dastan. “It’s the way he focuses on her mouth when she speaks or meets her eyes and they both break into a grin.”
She snorted a slight laugh. “They’re a bit too much sometimes. They definitely like each other.”
I focused on Dastan, watching him study Neema’s lips. “He’s wondering what her mouth tastes like.”
“He is not!” Nokomi protested, hiding a laugh with her hand.
I leaned over to Nokomi, speaking right next to her ear. “Watch his eyes, his body language. If we were not here, the conversation would be quite different, a lot more physical.”
Nokomi swallowed, and I smiled at the uptick in her heartrate as she studied her sister’s interaction with Dastan. We watched as Dastan’s fingertips inched over to touch Neema’s hand and Neema’s cheeks blushed slightly, only noticeable if you were looking for it.
“You may be right.” She whispered.
I braved the moment, trying to recapture what I’d felt on the balcony. I reached over and took her hand in mine. “Could we ever be like that?”
She stared at me for a long moment, searching for words. Then she looked away, eyes suddenly misty. “Probably not, Go.”
I let her hand go and nodded. Dog shifted unhappily at my side. To his credit, it was Nokomi that was the source of his displeasure. He nudged my leg with his hip, offering a reassuring presence.
“In another world or another time, maybe.” She offered a moment later, softening the blow a little, but a soft touch on the arm could not remove the sting of denial.
I took a breath and stood my ground, observing the room, as was my duty. I’d not been asked here to make advances on Nokomi.
Halina and Lila had accompanied Nokomi to this meeting, extra witnesses to the courtship. They also sat on the benches near Neema and Dastan, and I found that Halina was carefully looking everywhere but at Nokomi and I. She’d definitely seen what had just happened. Neema’s arched eyebrow also seemed to indicate that she’d noticed the exchange. She was astute if nothing else.
“We can’t talk here.” Nokomi whispered, loud enough that only I could hear. She glided away with a smile to join her sister.
Moments later, Dastan had given up his seat to Nokomi, and the two sisters were clasping hands, leaning on each other, and laughing. Dog and I stood apart from the others, never more aware of the gulf between these people and our pack. We were different and always would be. We were watching them, feeling for the first time like we would have given anything to be part of that group, but knowing we could never be.
Dog settled back on his haunches, observing. I did the same, leaning against the wall with the ease I’d learned as a soldier. Given time when little was required of you, one had to learn how to conserve energy. Why stand if you could lean, and why lean if you could sit? Sitting wasn’t exactly guarding though, so I leaned, relaxed but ready to move if needed.
That’s when Dog and I noticed it.
Servants had just arrived with another round of snacks and refreshments. Dog’s nose picked up the savory scents of meat and cheeses and sweets. We caught the scent of berries, a rare treat indeed in this season. The two servers smiled and excitedly described the delicacies they carried on their silver platters.
Dog and I shifted forward a pace, sensing something off. Only one of them wore gloves, although their uniforms were otherwise the same. The one without gloves seemed more anxious, more pleased to be serving. Neema lifted her hand to reach for one of the berries.
“They’re deliciously tart.” The ungloved man said with an obsequious smile.
Dog’s nostrils flared, sensing something foreign. My eyes widened and I threw myself forward with a snarl. With muscles inhumanly strong and reflexes that matched any animal, I hurtled over a plant and a bench, sliding toward the servant. With an animal growl, I slapped the tray aside and, in doing so, sent the servant tumbling over the bench he stood beside. The man went sprawling on the floor, dishes clattering loudly around him. Berries smeared across the floor like dark blood.
It all happened so fast. Neema’s eyes closed involuntarily, and she flinched away. Dastan tried to shield her from whatever was happening, but he was not nearly fast enough. He had one arm around her and the other out to fend me off, but there was nothing he could have done to stop the actual attacker, and less he could have done against me.
Lila and Dastan’s man both stared wide-eyed at me. The other server looked about ready to piss himself, and the dishes rattled on his tray as he trembled nervously. Kamaria’s amiable laugh had turned to a shriek of surprise, Nokomi was screaming at me to stop whatever I was doing, and Halina had drawn her knife protectively.
“Captain Goren!” Nokomi hissed, coming fully into her anger now. She stood and huffed, ready to launch into a tirade against me.
I turned to glare at her, shaking off the fire burning through my scalp as her anger made itself known acutely. Dog barked and lunged after the other server, who’d come to his feet with his own knife drawn even after being knocked down.
I let go completely then.
In mere moments, my teeth elongated under my lips, and my eyes went yellow. The skin of my fingertips parted to let claws tear out. My ears lengthened along with my face, which gave may to coarse fur along my jawline and down my neck. My muscles bulked and tightened, straining under the confines of my clothes; they were like fired steel, waiting to be given shape and direction.
Kamaria’s shrieks turned to fearful screams.
The server-turned-assassin slashed at me with his blade, a feint designed to get me to go on the defensive so he could go after Neema. That might have worked against a normal man. I was anything but normal. I brushed aside his feint and shattered his forearm with a chop of my hand. He cried out and was spun around with the force of my blow. He tried once more to reach for Neema with his good arm, but Dog intercepted him. With a broken arm and Dog’s jaws clamped around his other wrist, the assassin went down, howling in pain.
I crouched over the man, lifting him up by his shirt front. In the state I was in, he was no more heavy to me than a child. Dog let go as I lifted him, his teeth leaving deep punctures in the man’s arm that dribbled blood on the floor.
I snarled in his face, saliva splattering over his cheeks. “Who sent you?” I growled, having trouble forming the words properly with my altered mouth.
He shook his head, refusing to answer. I shook him, repeating my question. Still, he refused to answer. I held him up with my left hand and squeezed his shattered forearm with my right. I felt the broken bones shift under his skin, and he screamed, eyes widening.
At about that moment, dishes clattered to the ground behind me and I smelled fresh urine coming from the other server. Fear sweat was thick in the room, but I ignored it. Snorting a laugh, I threw the man into the corner, tossing him like a ragdoll.
“Get him, Dog.” I nodded my head toward the man and barked.
Dog set upon him as if he were a rabbit or a toy, harrying his limbs as he flailed about and tried to protect himself. Blood sprayed from a dozen wounds before I called him off, and only because I realized that Nokomi was shouting in my ear for me to stop. I’d been so focused on my task that I hadn’t even heard her, not until she took my face in her two hands and made me meet her eyes.
“Go… Stop.” She repeated again and again.
Dog fell back two paces and waited for the man to make a move, any move more than crying in the corner. I noticed that some of his blood had splattered on the murals near where the wild dog had been painted. It lent a sort of poetic accuracy to the painting to have been painted on by the same sort of animal. I laughed maniacally and turned back to Nokomi, confident that the man was no more threat. He certainly wouldn’t walk out of the room.
Only then did I notice the expressions on the others around me.
Dastan was aghast, but he clutched Neema to him protectively, shielding her eyes and face against his chest. His heart hammered in his chest, and I could smell the terror on him. Even so, he had the ability to meet my gaze. He swallowed audibly, to me at least. He had the look of a baby animal staring at its own death.
Halima wore a grim look. Her knife shook in her hand, still held before her. There was this look of surrender in her eyes. She knew she couldn’t stand against something like me, not if I wanted to do her harm, and I scared her. She was the sort that would have fought to her death, even knowing it was inevitable. There was steel in her.
Lila, Kamaria, Dastan’s man, and the other servant all looked at me as if I were a monster, something they wished would disappear from sight.
I ignored them, looking back to Nokomi once more. “This is what I am.” I whispered.
Her hands swept down my face to my shoulders, down my arms, to my hands. She took both of my clawed hands in hers and looked deeply and sadly into my yellow eyes. “I know.”
“There was poison. We could smell it.” I explained.
She nodded. “I believe you.”
“I would do anything to protect you.” I growled, looking back at the assassin with his ruined arms, scratched face, and bleeding legs.
She squeezed my hands with her much smaller ones. Mine were larger anyway, and the clawed tips of my fingers just made it more pronounced. “I know that, Go, but now you need to leave. The guards will be here to take care of our attacker. We don’t want any misunderstandings when they arrive. Halina and I can watch that man until they get here.”
“But…” I started to protest.
“I’m your princess, Captain Goren. Listen to my orders.”
I let the beast slide away then, shifting back toward my humanity. Dog still stood guard over the would-be assassin.
“Leave.” Nokomi ordered, her expression and tone offering no other course.
Dog and I left, listening to Nokomi bark orders to all still present that they were not to speak of what they’d just seen, none of it. It struck me then that Nokomi, even though she was the younger sister, had taken command of the situation. I was proud of her.
Yet, I wondered how this would play out, and I retreated to my residence, where I waited for my next audience with Emperor Baraz and Minister Kalb. I knew would not have to wait long, not after what had just happened.
National Novel Writing Month 2019: The Emperor's Dogs