I changed clothes while I waited. The others smelled too much of beasts. I didn’t mind it, but the musk of the beast set many people ill at ease. So, I put on my cleanest military uniform, complete with all of its symbols of rank. There was no point trying to hide what I was any more. If I stood before the leaders of our people, it would be as the soldier they’d trained me to be.
Kalb arrived to escort me personally to the audience. Teeth was beside him, as always, but there was something different in the way the two of them carried themselves, as if they were distancing themselves from me. This was official business, and any familiarity we might have shared was gone, for the moment at least.
We walked in silence to the same audience chamber that General Navid had been welcomed in. Before we entered, Kalb turned his cloudy yellow eyes to me and said only one thing, “Be true to yourself and honest. I can say no more.”
I nodded, and waited for the doorman inside to call for me. Dog and I walked forward, entering through the enameled double doors that stood before us. We were announced as we proceeded into the room.
“Captain Goren and his dog.” A voice called out.
I grunted and turned to the man, who was surprised by the sudden attention. I looked him up and down, noting his careful manner and stylish dress that were vastly different from my own. “He’s not ‘my dog.’ His name is ‘Dog.’”
“Uhh, yes. Captain Goren and Dog?” The man announced carefully.
I nodded, and then approached the front of the room, stopping at a respectful distance, about ten paces and three steps away from the Emperor and his advisors.
Kalb’s expression was unimpressed, but the Emperor seemed to understand the distinction I’d just demanded. Names and labels were important. The Empress was strangely absent, with General Navid taking her place at the left of the Emperor to balance out Kalb. Navid had traded his armor for more fitting and official garb. He was far more richly appointed than the Emperor, although he did not wear a crown, as his brother did.
“Revisit the details of the assassination attempt. Spare no detail.” The Emperor commanded. His eyes were flinty, and his body was a study of contained fury.
“Sir.” I bowed respectfully before beginning. “I was observing the interactions of the princesses with their suitors, as I have been commanded to do. I was performing my guard duties as expected, when Dog and I determined that one of the servers was not who he pretended to be.”
“What does that mean? How did you realize what his intents were or that he was not what he appeared to be?” Navid interrupted.
I noticed that he made no attempt to explain away the situation as a mistake. There was no talk of me attacking an innocent man, so at least we were all in agreement there.
“I smelled the poison on the food he was trying to serve princess Neema. I imagine that the tart berries would have hidden the flavor until it was too late.” I answered.
“You smelled the poison. Is this a normal part of your duties? Aside from being a captain in our armies, are you also a wine taster and food sniffer?” Navid laughed, but quieted when Baraz swung his gaze in his direction.
“Captain Goren is known for his abilities.” Kalb remarked.
“Oh? Which abilities? I’m just now getting to know the man, though he has appeared several times around the palace. It makes me wonder what all his duties are…”
The implication that I had spied on him was clear. I made no effort to hide what I’d done. Dog sniffed at my side, and I did the same. “You had cumin, garlic, and paprika on your lamb today, sir. You washed it down with red wine. You were served by a young woman wearing jasmine perfume. There is an awful lot of it on your neck and left shoulder, so I imagine that she sat beside you while you ate. And did she shovel your food into your mouth with a flat of bread cooked in oil?”
Navid stared at me, his mouth twisting into a frown. Kalb grinned.
“Enough. We understand just how acute your sense of smell is. Now get on with the details. Tell me of the assassin.” Emperor Baraz ordered.
I inclined my head once more and continued with my recollection. “There were two servers, and while they both wore the same clothing and generally looked similar, one went without gloves. It was a small detail that tipped us off, that with the smell of poison.”
“How well can you smell poisons?” Navid asked.
“Well enough. At least with those I’m familiar with.” I admitted.
“And how many are you familiar with?” The Emperor asked.
“Twenty to thirty types? Some were employed in missions along the borders, used in softening up forces or eliminating specific insurgents or key persons.” I answered.
Navid stared at me with newfound interest. “Aside from the gloves and smells, how did you know?”
I shook my head, unable to fully explain, but I did my best. It was in the details, the miniscule differences. “It was in his eagerness to get the princess to eat what he carried…”
The Emperor sat forward. “How so?”
“It is difficult to put in words, but I will try.” I glanced at Dog, who seemed to nod at me. “In the same way that I can tell if a man is being genuine to a woman, or if he is being polite because he must, or if he has more lust-driven motives, I could tell that this man had different motives for his actions. It was in the way he carried himself, the way he moved, the tone of his voice, the way his pupils contracted, and the excited smell upon his skin. It all combined to create a picture of one intending harm and delighting in doing it.”
“And what of these wounds upon the man?” Navid inquired. “He was hardly fit to speak by the time we gathered him up for questioning. It looked as if he’d been savaged by wild animals.”
I met the general’s gaze, letting my eyes go yellow. “I am what I am, and he deserved every wound on his body, more even. He did not need his arms to tell you his secrets.” I smiled toothily, and Dog stood at attention beside me, the hair on his back rising.
The general knew exactly what I was, and there was no sense hiding it any longer, not if he’d already started gathering more of my kind to his side. Let him know that at least two dogs guarded the royal family.
The Emperor’s fist banged on the arm of his throne then. He gritted his teeth and glared at Kalb, though it was not his fault. It was the anger of a man whose family had just been attacked, and he knew there was nothing he could have done about it. What I’d just described was beyond his ability to sense.
“They came after my daughter, Kalb. Always, they came for me before, but now the rules have changed, and they think to go after my daughters.”
“I know, Sire.” Kalb bowed his head.
The Emperor thrust himself up out of his chair, startling Navid beside him. The Emperor staggered down the few steps that held his chair, coming down to a level with me. He had a crazed look in his eyes, a look that promised he was going to do something uncharacteristic of him.
I wanted to take a step back, but I did not. I remained standing as he came forward and threw himself at my feet and wept. These were tears of anger, frustration, and relief. I looked over at Kalb, who looked away uncomfortably, and then at Navid, who stared at this momentary show of weakness with utter fascination.
“You have saved the life of my daughter. I am deeply in your debt.” The Emperor said, head bowed.
“You owe me nothing.” I responded quickly. “Neema is important to Nokomi.”
“You have no idea, Go.” The Emperor said, catching his breath and gritting his teeth.
I sank down to kneel in front of him. “I think I do. I understand the need to protect one’s pack.”
The Emperor reached out and clasped me about the shoulders, nodding. “You know then, but how I wish I could have been be there to rip the man to pieces, to tear him limb from limb.”
“I understand that desire, too. That was how I felt with Tiny. Someone had hurt one of mine, and that was why it had to be me to kill Drum. You afforded me that privilege, and I have not forgotten that, sir. That is why you owe me nothing.”
The Emperor smiled at that. “Know that we will find the source of these attacks, Go, and you will be there to watch me strike them down this time. I am not one to forgive such an attack. Not ever.”
“Brother, it occurs to me that this may be the beginning of Arven’s retribution. Have I erred so badly in judging them? Would they seek the death of an Emperor’s daughter as a trade-off for a few foot soldiers in a port city?” Navid wondered aloud.
“This is not the way of the Kingdom of Arven. It is not the sort of reprisal they would’ve chosen. They are merchants, not murderers.” Kalb protested.
Navid shook his head. “What are assassins but merchants of death? Does it not fit? Is the timing not curious?”
“No more curious than the timing of your arrival.” Kalb muttered.
Navid stood abruptly, reaching for his ceremonial sword. “What are you implying, Minister?”
Teeth stood up, growling at the general and looking every bit of his size. Kalb put a restraining hand on Teeth’s shoulder. “Was it unclear?”
“Choose your next words carefully, Minister. I am brother to the Emperor. You are merely a friend of the court that walks around with a big dog.” Navid scoffed, letting an inch of his sword slide from the scabbard.
“Teeth is a very big dog, and I wonder if your brother might find it worth the risk if there is even a small chance that the attacks on his family stopped. Would you risk that?” Kalb grinned toothily, and Teeth growled a bit louder.
The Emperor watched my face as I observed the exchange. I suddenly suspected that this was playing out as he’d planned it. I also realized that Kalb had just painted a much larger target on himself than he’d had before if the one behind these attacks truly was General Navid.
“Peace.” The Emperor said, but it was enough.
The Emperor looked at both of them, allowing no more words to pass between the two as he retook his place on the center chair. Navid’s sword settled back into its scabbard, though his hateful looks did not vanish. Kalb looked as if he’d come out ahead in the exchange, and Teeth sat back on his haunches, staring at the general.
“We will recall more of our dogs back to the city.” The Emperor announced. “We will hunt these assassins in their nests. They will not be spared.”
“As you wish.” Kalb bowed.
“And the Kingdom of Arven?” Navid asked.
“I will deal with them directly. Preparations will be made.” The Emperor replied coolly.
It wasn’t certain whether he believed that the Kingdom of Arven had any hand in the attack or not, but he was not one to let things go unsettled. Strangely, the smell coming off of General Navid was also one of satisfaction.
I was dismissed shortly after, sent back to my quarters until my orders arrived.
National Novel Writing Month 2019: The Emperor's Dogs