I woke in a cage in a darkened room, feeling as if I’d been thoroughly beaten. I probably had been, but my memory was hazy. I couldn’t see much beyond the dark, damp walls. What part of the complex was I in? I didn’t recognize it. Even the smells were strange.
I smacked my lips, disliking the cottony feeling of my tongue. My head ached along with the rest of my face. The areas around my jaw and nose were especially tender, as if the bones had been broken and had recently reknitted. My fingertips were bleeding. So was the slash on my side, where the halberd had cut along my ribs. It was crusty and stuck to my shirt, what was left of my shirt anyway. I also had a crossbow wound in my thigh, a dog bite on my ankle, and an impressive collection of bruises and scrapes.
I’d had worse.
I smiled, remembering the alley fight with the desert cat from my childhood. “That was something, eh?” I spoke to Dog, except Dog wasn’t there.
Panic set in. I lurched up from my prone position, forgetting that I was in a cage. My head slammed into the top of the cage. I howled with rage and shook the bars of the cage in my fists. This just made me madder. I screamed until I panted, and I pulled at the bars until sweat and saliva both dripped from me.
“DOG!” I screamed over and over and over again, screaming myself hoarse.
Distantly, I thought I heard a bark, a yelp of recognition. There was a tickle at the back of my mind, a presence. I knew it was him, but he was not here, and he was as hurt as I was. We needed to be together. Why was he not with me? In my life, I could not ever recall having been separated, and it was a horrible sensation.
I heard a clank from the door. I ceased my screaming and struggling, catching my breath as I watched to see who came in. I smelled him before I saw him, although his outline was also familiar.
“Kalb.” I hissed.
“Go.” Kalb replied, closing the door behind him. I heard it bolt and lock from the other side. He stepped over to my cage and settled him onto the floor in the manner of someone older and more tired than he looked.
In the dim light, I focused on his yellow eyes, which seemed to glow from within. They were not so yellow as they were when he grew angry, when he became more than just a man, as I had. In his eyes, I could see a faint reflection of my face, and my eyes were no longer yellow.
“You’ve made quite a mess of things.” He sighed.
I laughed. “I have? Did I ask to be put here? Did I ask to be treated like this? You did all of that.”
Kalb smiled beneath his beard, teeth flashing. “Boy, you have no idea the opportunities you’re being given. On the street, what were you? You were a thief or a scavenger at best. Here, you can be something!”
I shook my head. “I was something. I was a pack.”
“And what did that amount to? You were untrained, a waste of the gift you were born with. You could be so much more than any of these boys…”
Kalb shook his head. “You don’t understand. What you did yesterday, it’s something that I can do, but that took me years to learn. I cannot understand how you’ve done it so soon. Your abilities… they will be amazing.”
“I don’t want to be a beast.”
“But you’ve always been one. You just didn’t realize it. Like you, I was a feral child once, too. Only I didn’t save the Emperor’s daughter. I saved him.”
“You saved the Emperor?” This was news to me. It’s something I hadn’t imagined. Was that why he served the Emperor? Were they pack?
Kalb nodded. “I met him in the market after his people had conquered our lands, although conquer is a rough and inaccurate word for what really happened. We were a scattered, fractured people. We squabbled and fought over scraps of territory. His people came in and united us under their banner. We are more under them than we were when free. Our people have prospered more in the last twenty years than they had in the two hundred before they came among us.”
“And for that I owe your Emperor my service?”
“Oh, I think we know more than that, you and I.” Kalb laughed. “A dog can’t have two masters.”
I swallowed hard. Did he know? “Was that why the tests…” I trailed off.
“The perfume. The girl. The statues. I needed to know for certain.”
His eyes took on a look of concern, a surprising emotion that I could smell upon him. “Politics are strange, convoluted games, Go. I’ve said that I serve the Emperor. Like you, I am bonded to him. When he was a boy, someone tried to have him killed. I saved him, and he bonded me that day. We shared blood. I feel its fire in my veins to this day, even years later, the same as you feel hers.”
“Yes. Nokomi, his daughter. All of these boys are going to be sworn and loyal to the Emperor, but what happens when the Emperor changes or dies? Who will their loyalty transfer to?”
“Why would the Emperor die?”
“Remember how there was an attempt on his life as a boy? Those have never stopped. Every year on that day, another attempt is made. He has been fortunate. He has always avoided death, sometimes at a personal cost. Other times I have borne the pain intended for him, but we have always come out alive.”
“But that can’t last forever.” I surmised.
“No, it can’t. One day, our luck will run out.”
“Then find who is doing it and stop them!” If the Emperor died, what would that mean for Nokomi?
A flash of teeth again, a vicious smile from Kalb. “We have not been lax in our attempts to find the source of the assassins. Still years later, we’ve not been able to root out the true source. Explanations have been offered, but I don’t like them. There is one who hides his true intentions.”
I narrowed my eyes at him. Something wasn’t being said here. “You know who it is.”
“I believe I know the real culprit, but the Emperor would never believe me.”
I sniffed. “Family.”
Kalb regarded me with surprise once again. “It is not Nokomi or her sister. I trust his wife as well. I won’t mention names now, because I don’t know how far to trust you. There are things you should not know until you are ready.”
“What is it you want from me then?”
“I want you to swear to serve the Emperor.”
“You said I cannot serve two masters…”
He nodded. “Exactly, but you might serve your true master and the Emperor while the interests of the two coincide. There will come a day when the Emperor will die, hopefully of old age. At that time, the army we’re making here will transfer their loyalty to someone else, the new Emperor.”
“Who will that be?”
“The Empress may take control for a while, but there will have to be an Emperor. It will be a new consort for the Empress, the husband of one of his daughters, or another relative.” He hesitated, as if to say more, but then he remembered who he was speaking to. “Nokomi is the youngest daughter, so she is the least threatening of the three ladies, but you’ve already bonded with her. I want you to protect her, no matter what. I want you to be her personal guardian, all the while pretending to serve only the Emperor.”
“You want me to lie to the Emperor about my loyalty to him? Don’t you serve him?”
“Don’t be daft.” He said sharply. “I am serving him by setting you as a true guardian to his most beloved child. He loves the Empress Anahita as his mate, and he loves his firstborn daughter, Neema, but Nokomi is his heart. That girl can do no wrong in his eyes, despite her rebellious nature. I am protecting her to serve him.”
“She is pack.” I said softly.
“I know, Go.” He sighed. “I know.” If anyone understood this, it was him.
“But what do I do about this place?”
“You learn. I need you to endure this punishment. You attacked a guard, a servant of the Emperor. You need to be punished for that.”
“But being separated from Dog!”
Kalb held up his hands. “It was necessary. Even unconscious, you couldn’t return to human until you were separated. You don’t have the control you need. You will learn, and someday you will be able to become the beast without losing the brain of a man.”
“I need Dog.” I insisted.
“I know. He will be returned to you. You two can heal together, until your punishment is up.”
“Drum?” Had my rival been punished as well?
“He has been punished for disrespecting the Emperor’s daughter. He was whipped and forced to clean the statue.”
That was acceptable. It didn’t mean it would change him though. I knew his type. He’d look for a way to get his revenge. He was an ugly person. There was still the matter of my pack. “Panj?”
“Your pack, if they’ll still have you as leader, has grown. Face joined it. He wasn’t welcome in Chahar anymore.”
That was welcome news, at least. I liked Face. He was better suited to our pack than Chahar. Still, would my own pack want me back? “What if they don’t want me anymore?”
“Then you live apart. There are consequences to actions, Go. This might be one of them for you. No matter where you end up, you must still learn your lessons, beside them, if not with them. What you have is important. They will fear you, but they will want what you have. They will want to learn to do as you have. That is one of the reasons why we created the Kennel. You have more of the Old Blood in you than any of them, and it shows. Respect will come as you learn your lessons and grow more powerful. You don’t need their love.”
“Old Blood, that is this animal connection we have… Is that so different from what Nokomi’s people have? If they come from another land, then they don’t have the Old Blood in them?”
‘The Old Blood is strange to them. Even in our land, it is a widely forgotten remnant of our people’s first days in the world, when animals offered their minds to us, when we worked together to protect each other and live. That’s why they’re only just now trying to make use of it.” Kalb explained.
He traced a scar on his forearm. Was that where he’d been bonded? The scar on my forehead flared at the memory of Nokomi’s blood mixing with mine. “And Nokomi’s people?”
“What they have is the New Blood. It’s the power of blood and fire. You’ve felt it in your veins. They come from a harsh place, a place where fire was life. It became part of their family in particular. It is why they rule. Their blood is like fire. It is fire, if they want it to be. It can also bond people to them, as with you and I.”
I tried to understand all of this. It was a lot to take in. I was to serve the Emperor, while secretly serving his daughter instead. I would be her guardian and protector, but only if I made it through this place and learned to control my abilities.
“Go?” Kalb asked, seeing as how I’d gone silent.
“Do we have an understanding? Will you serve Nokomi?”
“You didn’t have to ask. It’s all I’ve ever wanted since I met her. I’ve only ever wanted to be beside her. She is pack.”
“There will come a time, I fear, when serving her might mean putting you at odds with the rest of the kingdom. Will you still serve her then?”
“Dog and I will serve her to our deaths. She is pack.” I repeated.
Kalb reached a hand toward the cage, grasping my hand where it was clasped around the bars. “Boy, I want to trust you. Do not betray my faith in you.”
Kalb laughed. “Your persistence is admirable. I will bring him here immediately.”
“And food. Water. Clothes.”
“Fine. It will be so. Now heal and learn your lessons well.”
“And you, will you be back?”
Kalb stared at me for a long moment, thinking. “I think I will, if I can, when there are lessons that these men can’t teach you. Know that I cannot come often. There are those that watch my comings and goings, and this place is still a secret.”
He hammered on the door with a fist. It was opened hurriedly. Even the guards here feared his wrath and moved quickly to do his will. What must that be like, I wondered?
After he left, I heard him in the halls, barking orders at the soldiers guarding my door. He called for Dog to be brought to me, along with food, water, and more. I settled back down into the straw of the cage and waited.
My excitement trickled through the bond I shared with Dog. He knew. We’d be together again soon. I knew his tail was wagging. I could feel it.
National Novel Writing Month 2019: The Emperor's Dogs