Since the attempt on Neema’s life, Dog and I had rarely left the royal residence, other than for occasional meals or to bathe and change clothes, and I made sure to never do that on any regular schedule. I even slept in odd shifts, sometimes during the day, other times during the night or napping for short periods here and there. Between Dog and I, one of us was always alert.
A cry from the second floor made Dog’s ears perk up. I felt a tingle across my face, and I rose from my place on a bench on the main floor. Everything was quiet, and that was whey I’d heard the cry.
Dog and I took the steps two at a time. We came to a halt outside the doors to Nokomi’s room, panting and listening to the sounds within. We had no sooner arrived than the door cracked open just a sliver. Halina appeared in that sliver of light beyond the door.
“She’s fine.” Halina said tiredly. “She knew you’d come, but she’s fine.”
“We heard her cry out.” I said, putting my foot in the door so she could not close it.
“Your ears are too sharp, Captain. You can go back to sleep. It was just a bad dream.”
I opened my mouth to protest, but I heard Nokomi inside the room call out, “Let him in, Halina.”
Halina looked as if she might argue, but she sighed and stepped aside. She crossed her arms over her chest and waited for Dog and I to pass, so she could close the door behind us.
I’d never been in Nokomi’s chambers before, not really. The room on the other side of the door was a sitting area. A pair of benches sat beside a small table for taking tea, and tapestries hung upon the walls. It was otherwise an unremarkable room.
Curtains divided that from a short hallway, which split off into a dressing room to the right and a smaller room to the left that smelled of clothing: silks, linens, and rich fabrics. At the end of that short hallway was a larger room, much larger than the others. I could feel a cool draft of evening air flowing from that way, so I knew that it must open onto the balcony. That would be her sleeping chamber.
As I entered that room, I noticed Lila getting up to wander sleepily toward the front entry. She yawned tiredly, not even bothering to acknowledge my presence as she passed by to join Halina.
I smiled at that. I could appreciate one who took to sleep so deeply, not that I ever could. Dog and I had been raised on the streets, where you always slept with one eye open, never fully asleep. Like wild animals, we’d had to be ready to run away or defend ourselves at a moment’s notice, and those habits had never really gone away. If anything, they suited the soldier’s life we’d found ourselves in quite well.
I looked around the large room, which was dominated by a large round mattress that was shrouded in netting to keep out biting insects or moths that might be drawn to the candle light that offered the barest amount of light in the corners of the room and near the balcony entrance.
Nokomi shifted inside the netted area, coming into a sitting position with her arms wrapped around her knees. I tilted my head, focusing on her through the netting. I could make out her white sleeping gown again, a strong contrast with her dark hair, and I could see the faintest hint of her eyes.
“Come here.” She bid me.
I cast a glance over my shoulder, noticing Halina watching me still. She frowned at me from the doorway, but said nothing. Dog needed no further invitation. He started forward, searching for a gap between the sheets of netting.
“Over there.” Nokomi said, flicking a spark from her fingertips in the direction of the nearest opening.
I watched the spark float on the air and die on the way to the netting, as did Dog. When it was gone, we moved to the opening, and I pulled it open for Dog. He went in immediately, padding across the wide expanse of mattress toward Nokomi, but I hesitated.
“Take off your boots.” She suggested.
I did that, and crawled in to follow Dog, who’d settled in next to her. She’d already draped an arm companionably over him, and he watched me with a gloating expression on his face as he enjoyed her attention.
“Wicked beast.” I grumbled, working my way across to them.
The mattress was quite large, and I found three distinct impressions upon it, with Nokomi settled in the center one. Halina and Lila clearly slept beside the princess, creating a protective barrier around her while she slept. Those who would seek her for any purpose while she slept would have to get passed the handmaidens.
It brought to mind the heaps of boys and dogs that had slept beside each other during my days in the Kennel. I couldn’t count the number of times I’d woken up to find a foot, tail, or slobbery face right next to mine. Not to mention, Dog and I had used each other as pillows since before I knew how to talk.
I settled in near Nokomi with only Dog between us. I watched her in the low light. Her eyes looked wide and alert.
“What was that spark before? Was that your fire?” She’d threatened to use it a few times in my presence, but I’d never actually seen it used.
I remembered the cut on her hand from the first time we’d met. She’d slit her palm and had been prepared to use her heartfire to burn the desert cat that had attacked. She hadn’t needed to, since Dog and I had dispatched it, but that cut had leaked her blood into the wound on my forehead, and we’d been bonded ever since.
Again, on the second time we’d met, she’d been ready to spill her blood to fight Kalb for our freedom. She’d almost been willing to turn against him with her blood magic, but it hadn’t come to that. Instead, we’d gone off to the Kennel to be trained to serve in her father’s special army, as part of the Emperor’s Dogs.
Nokomi flicked her fingers again, and a spark floated between us, vanishing just short of the tip of my nose. I saw her grinning madly, her face illuminated by the mote of firelight until it faded.
“I keep one fingernail sharp, so I can pierce the tip of my finger. I can flick that tiny drop of blood and create a spark that can light a candle.” She explained.
“Or lead a Dog and an army captain to your bedside.” I observed.
“Or that.” She agreed.
When she grew silent, I asked the question that hung between us unspoken, “Talk to me. What are these dreams that wake you?”
She hesitated at first, but this was why she’d let me in here. She wanted to tell me, even though I could sense the battle inside her. I knew that she must be breaking some unspoken rule to speak of what was on her mind.
“It’s not dreams.”
“Then what is it?”
“It’s the heartfire, Go. It’s growing stronger. I can feel it burning brighter in my veins.”
“Because of your brother’s birth?” It had only been a week since the birth. Could that much have changed already?
She shook her head, her fragrant hair shaking unbound about her shoulders. “No, it’s different than that.”
She pursed her lips, trying to decide how to explain it. “Heartfire is finite. There is only so much of it to go around, or at least that is how I’ve always understood it. Those of us who have it must share it with others in our bloodline, with each of us getting a share dependent on how close we are to the original source. Among our people, my father’s line is strongest with the greatest share. My uncles, aunts, cousins, and more distant relatives receive smaller shares.”
“Like a jug of water shared into different sizes of cups.” I surmised.
She nodded. “Exactly, so with Shapur’s birth, there should be less of it to go around, not more.”
“Because his would be another cup, and being your father’s son, it should be a big cup, and you’re saying that is not true? You feel more fire within you than before? What does that mean?”
“It means that somewhere, members of our family or those bonded to our family are dying.”
My blood ran cold, and my jaw tightened. “Where? Who?”
“I don’t know. That’s what scares me.”
Dog whined between us, and we broke eye contact to focus on the animal for a moment.
“I’m not sure what I can do about this. Your father would know best, and Kalb has reach across this kingdom. He could see to it that everyone is protected. I can’t do anything beyond what I am doing here.”
“I know.” She said softly. Clearly she did not blame me, but she shuddered once more.
“What is it?”
“It’s happening again!” She whimpered. Her skin flushed hot and her eyes glowed warmly. A sweat broke out across her face and neck as she took a greater share of the heartfire magic into herself.
“Someone is hunting your kind.” I surmised. “They want that power to themselves.”
She nodded, biting her lip. “That was stronger, closer. It must have been a cousin or someone stronger. I have never felt that strong of a change before. Go, it has to be murder! When one of our kind slips into death of old age or illness, their power has already faded in the days leading up to their death, so it is a gentle, gradual transition of their power into the collective we share. This is sudden, sharp.”
I suspected Navid immediately, but did not understand his full intent. “If your magic is stronger, so then is that of your father, mother, your sister, and your brother, right? Your uncle as well?”
“Yes, everyone who is left alive will have a greater share of the heartfire. I’m sure that father has felt the change tonight.”
“And what if there was only one of you left?” I asked.
“Why he, or she, would be practically bursting at the seams with heartfire. Their blood magic would be incredibly potent, but the magic does not like that. It would search for a way out. It would hope to spread into connections, as it has with you and I, or into offspring, as it has with Shapur.”
My forehead tingled with our shared bond. “All I can do is protect you.”
She reached across Dog and took my hand in hers. It was feverishly hot, but I did not flinch away. “Stay then. Don’t leave me.”
I glanced back at the doorway, where Halina waited, knife ever at the ready, knowing her. Lila had vanished, and I could easily imagine her sleeping on a bench in the entry or on a settee in the changing room.
A squeeze of my hand brought my attention back to Nokomi. She breathed heavily, beads of perspiration standing out on her forehead. My eyes tracked one as it ran down the back of her jaw, just in front of her ear, riding her skin down to the hollow of her neck, where the fabric of her sleeping gown absorbed it.
She reclined on one side, keeping Dog beside her. I followed her lead, not breaking eye contact or letting her hand go as I sank into the perfumed bed linens. Dog’s wet nose rubbed against my forearm.
“It’s my Uncle Navid, isn’t it?” Nokomi whispered past Dog to me in the near darkness.
“Kalb and I think so.” I admitted. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to share my suspicions with her, but I was loyal to her first and foremost.
Her eyes closed, and she went flat onto her back and breathed out heavily, as if it were a relief to finally be told the truth.
“Your uncle is trying to blame the Kingdom of Arven, saying this is retribution for his taking if Saluud, but it doesn’t all fit. I’m not sure if your father wants to believe it, one way or the other.”
She weighed the two options bitterly. “So it’s either outright war or betrayal.”
“What will we do?” She asked.
“Survive. What else can we do?”
“Can you actually keep us safe from him, if it is him?” She asked. “He controls a good part of the army. There are those who are loyal to him within the palace as well.”
I wasn’t going to lie to her. It was a tall order to save them all. “I will look to your safety first, Nokomi. Then I’ll try to save your mother, brother, and sister.”
“Kalb can protect him. You know that he would ask me to see to his family before I thought of him anyway. I know how he thinks, what his priorities are.”
“If this happens, the palace won’t be safe.”
I nodded. “I know, but there are some that I trust, very few, but there are some I could trust to keep us safe.”
“I’ve never left my home before.” She sounded like a little girl in that moment, one unsure of her future.
“Let’s hope you never have to.” I squeezed her hand reassuringly.
A moment later, she shuddered again with the loss of another family member somewhere across the kingdom and the subsequent gain of more heartfire that accompanied it.
“I’m afraid.” She whispered.
Dog whined, getting up to stare out past the netting toward the night sky. I knew there was nothing there, but he was not one to sit around when a member of the pack was ill at ease. He let himself out of the netting and sat guard, doing his duty.
Nokomi crawled over beside me, bridging the short distance. Our eyes met, mine glowing yellow in the reflection I saw within hers, which glowed red. She pulled her hair back behind her shoulders and settled onto my shoulder, pillowing herself upon me.
My chin rested upon the top of her head, and I breathed in the scent of her hair, accented with the sweat of fear and the potent musk of fire magic that burned through her. Despite what she was going through, I felt more at ease than I could ever remember. I felt a momentary bit of guilt, but let it go. If this was the comfort she required, I would give it.
Somehow, sleep found us both. We rested well, knowing that Dog would watch over us both.
National Novel Writing Month 2019: The Emperor's Dogs