I woke beside Nokomi, with Halina and Lila huddled together behind me. Dog had eventually found his way back into the bed as well, with his back pressed against Nokomi’s.
My eyes opened and I yawned quietly, stifling the noise against the back of my hand. Even so, it was enough to wake Nokomi. A momentarily look of guilt crossed her face as she realized where I was. She lifted her head to look past me at her two handmaidens, who were both fast asleep still.
“You should go.” She mouthed to me.
I nodded and levered myself up with an elbow. I made to leave, but her hand caught mine first, and she pulled me down to press her lips against my cheek. I smiled at that, enjoying the warm softness against my face.
“Be safe.” She whispered ever so faintly into my ear, and then she let me go.
“You, too.” I whispered back.
She gave Dog a playful swat on the haunch as he stood. Then Dog and I made for the edge of the bed, lifting the netting over us instead of searching for a seam. I walked quietly around the edge of the bed to pick up my boots.
As I bent down to collect them, I noticed one of Halina’s blue eyes on me. It was a strange look, something between thankfulness and warning. She didn’t trust me fully, but she appreciated that I’d been able to comfort Nokomi, I supposed.
I nodded to her and plucked my boots off the floor. Dog and I departed swiftly. I put my boots on before I left her outside room, sliding out into the hallway, only to find Teeth waiting for me. That’s not something you appreciate in the morning, a giant beast waiting for you on the other side of a door and looking none too pleased.
“Good morning, Captain Goren.” Kalb was seated on a bench on the blind side of the doorway, and I did not see him until the door swung shut behind me.
“Kalb.” My face flushed, but I’d done nothing wrong. Not really.
“The Emperor has orders for you.” He stood and brushed the wrinkles from his robes of office. “Walk with me.”
I cleared my throat and nodded, falling in beside him. Dog stayed at my side, keeping his distance from Teeth, who smelled grumpy.
We entered the main hallway, heading toward the stairs that led to the upper levels of the residence. The stairs to the upper dome were near the middle of this floor, as it was much smaller than the lower dome that made up most of the residence.
Pairs of guards parted to allow the minister and his company access to the upper floors. These stairs were much more modest, leaving only space for the two of us and our dogs to walk abreast.
The third floor had a much more enclosed feeling to it, likely because the halls were narrower and the ceilings were not nearly so high as on the lower levels. Instead of stone, much of this floor seemed to be done with polished, fragrant woods. The inlays had been carved with geometric patterns, rosettes of ellipses and arcs.
“The Emperor’s private library.” Kalb announced, noticing my nose twitching.
That explained the dust and old parchment. There was more of it in the room we entered, a wide place filled with trophies and shelves of books. There were swords and armor on display, as well as interesting crystals formed in delicate hues of blue and red. More than anything, my eyes were drawn to a sculpture made of wild animal horns at the center of the room, with horns of ibex, gazelle, and springbok. It looked like a blazing star, all formed of animal horns. There was something primal about it that I appreciated.
Emperor Baraz was seated in an old wooden chair, waiting for us near that horned sculpture. He had a well-worn leather bound volume sitting on his lap. He looked up as we entered, his tired face looking more worn and worried than I’d ever seen it. His face looked sallow, almost sickly or weak. Perhaps the deaths over the last night had been harder on him than on Nokomi.
“Minister. Captain.” He greeted us each in turn.
“Sir.” I sketched a hasty bow.
The Emperor stared at me for a long moment. “I trust you are keeping a good watch over my family?”
“I am keeping a very close watch.” I answered swiftly, a blush filling my cheeks once more. It was a good thing the sun had darkened my complexion to hide it.
Beside me, Kalb’s mouth twitched with amusement, but he said nothing to betray me. However, it was entirely possible that the Emperor already knew where I’d slept the night before.
“Kalb and I are leaving. We’re going to meet with an envoy from the Kingdom of Arven.”
This news surprised me. “So soon? Your child was just born.”
The Emperor’s eyes hardened. “I’m aware of that, Captain, but the politics of a nation do not wait for personal reasons, not even if you’re the Emperor.”
“I understand, Sir. I just meant…” I started to explain myself, but Kalb grunted, signaling me to close my mouth. I did. Dog sat meekly on his haunches.
“I would prefer not to leave, but this is not a matter that can wait. Between the conflict at Saluud and the deaths last night, I need to get moving quickly.”
“What would you have of me? Should I accompany you?”
The Emperor shook his head. “General Navid will be staying behind. I need you to keep an eye on my brother and see that he is not up to no good.”
I bit my lip, refusing to ask the question that burned on my tongue, but the Emperor noticed.
“Yes? You have something to say, Captain Goren?”
“Is this not the opportunity he has waited for? Are you not possibly playing into his hands by leaving the seat of your power?”
The Emperor smiled and looked to Kalb. “Explain it to him.”
Kalb nodded. “If he truly is the one behind all of this, he cannot help but take this opportunity. He will make his move when he thinks the Emperor is distracted. That is why I’ve positioned our most loyal soldiers throughout the residence. Our best soldiers are ready to defend the royal family.”
I still wasn’t sure that I agreed with this tactic. A pack was strongest together. Dividing himself from his defenses made him vulnerable. “Would it not be better to take him with the two of you? How easily can he threaten the family if he is not here to direct the attacks?”
Kalb frowned, his lips pursing under his beard. Did he also have his doubts? He went silent, and the Emperor answered directly.
“Whoever is behind this, they are cautious, always moving behind the scenes. So it has been for many years. We need to finally create a situation where they feel like they can make an outright move. I can’t afford to play around any longer, waiting for them to make a mistake and expose themselves by accident. If it is Navid, he will not make any move while he is beside me. If it is him, then my family is safer yet with him here, as they will target me on the way to Arven and not them.”
“We’ve moved many of the Emperor’s Dogs back to the capitol, Go.” Kalb offered, as if this was as good as the Emperor remaining safely in the city. “You can call on them to defend the royal family. There are several in the city, and more arriving on the palace grounds.”
My mind whirled with the possibilities, and I could not help but ask the one thing no one was saying, “And what if you fail, Sir? What if you die on that road to Arven?”
“Then I will have vastly underestimated my enemies.” The Emperor admitted. “In that case, you will need to do what you can to protect my family.”
“I will be with him, Go. None will get to him save through Teeth and I.” Kalb declared. Teeth barked at his side, eyeing me as if daring me to dispute that fact.
While that would have once comforted me, I knew that even Kalb was not invincible. He could not outrun arrows any more than Fire and Mongrel had been able to, and they had been much younger than him, if less powerful.
I could see that there was nothing I could say to change their minds, so I would do what I could. “Then I will meet with the other dogs in the palace. I will arrange the protection of your family.”
“Watch over them, Captain.” The Emperor bid me.
“Of course. I shall not fail you in this. I shall guard them as if they were my own.” I bowed deeply.
The Emperor nodded, looking once more at his book. He eyed it, and then extended it out toward me. “Take it.”
“It is a copy of my family’s history.” He explained. “I think it will help you to better understand us.”
Dog and I stepped forward to receive the book. There was a wistful look about the Emperor’s eyes that I didn’t fully understand.
“In another time, Captain Goren…” The Emperor did not finish the thought.
Dog, ever the empathetic one, seemed to sense the Emperor’s need for comfort. He pressed his nose against our nation’s leader. The Emperor smiled, gave Dog a pet about the head and a gentle tug on his jowls. Dog’s tailed thumped against me.
“I will not fail you.” I repeated, holding the volume against my chest and bowing a second time.
“Travel safely.” I bid them.
The Emperor said no more, so Dog and I took our leave. We had dogs to meet with.
National Novel Writing Month 2019: The Emperor's Dogs