The hallways were indeed filled with soldiers, but they did not all belong to Navid. Once we were in the hallway, Halina surrendered her sword to me, switching back to the knives she knew so well. She produced a pair of forearm-length daggers from the folds of her skirts, from where I did not know. I raised my estimate of the girl once more, appreciating her preparedness.
I may not have loved using a sword, but I was a fair swordsman in my own right. Given my skills and the beast-given reflexes and strength I had, I cut through the soldiers that stood in our way with a business-like efficiency. I left a tangle of severed limbs and dying men in my wake, while Dog and Halina made certain to leave no one behind that might tell of our passing.
We found a troop of soldiers holding the hallway outside of the Empress’ chambers and another group assaulting the barricade of shields and tables they’d set up. It was clear to see which side the attackers were on, and I fell upon them from behind, catching them unaware, ripping through them like claws through silk.
Seeing the sudden assistance, the soldiers holding the hall surged forward, helping me dispatch the remaining soldiers loyal to General Navid. Half a dozen tired, wounded men congratulated each other and looked to me as their savior, choosing to ignore my beast-like appearance, if only because Princess Nokomi was beside me. Or, perhaps you don’t really care what your help looks like so long as it’s killing your enemies and saving your lives.
While Halina saw to slitting throats and stabbing downed men through their hearts, Princess Nokomi stepped forward and took charge. “Masih, where is my mother?”
The soldier removed his helmet, bowing quickly. He had a face lined by age and weariness, but a kindness about him. “Princess, she remains within her chambers. She has hidden there since the explosion, and we’ve been holding the hall against General Navid’s men.”
“How did you come to be here?” Nokomi asked.
“Minister Kalb had us stationed in the residence before they left. When the explosions and fighting started, we gathered and tried to secure this floor. We were overwhelmed and many died fighting. This is all we have left of us…”
I cleared my throat. This was all well and good, but we couldn’t very well stay out here and talk when General Navid was in the middle of a coup.
Nokomi nodded to me, and turned back to the guardsman. “Thank you, Masih. Take me to my mother now. We need to get her out of the palace as quickly as possible.”
“But what of your father? What of the Emperor?” Another of the guardsmen asked, his voice full of hope and concern.
“My father is gone. He was murdered by my uncle.” Nokomi answered bitterly.
“He’s dead?” The man echoed in disbelief. The soldiers exchanged glances.
I wondered at the wisdom of sharing such news with the men at this point. If they saw their plight as hopeless, they might very well abandon us on the spot, or even switch sides, hoping to secure the favor of General Navid and their own safety by turning us in. I growled low in my throat.
Masih, the lead guard, appeared to know what I was thinking. He sensed it and held his hands up. “Peace, Captain.” He swallowed hard as he met my eyes, but he did not look away. “Know that I have served this family faithfully for many years, and I am not about to betray the Princess. I will see her safely out of the palace, no matter the cost.”
Nokomi realized her error, and I could hear her heart race as she searched the faces of the men around her. They were not all so well-known to her as this Masih. Between Dog, Halina, and I, none of them looked like they wanted to test us, but I could smell the unsurety on them.
“Help me get my mother and brother to safety, you six, and I shall forever be indebted to you all. After that, I will ask no more of you. You may stay at my side, flee, or even join my uncle. I only ask that you grant me this one last favor.” Nokomi pleaded.
The six of them nodded, one or two reluctantly, but they all nodded.
“Quickly then. Time is of the essence.” She urged them.
We moved onto the Empress’ door, where Nokomi knocked. After some calling and convincing, she managed to get her mother to open the door.
Empress Anahita somehow managed to look graceful, even in the bedraggled state she was in. Her face was tear-streaked, her hair was a mess, there were stains of blood and char upon her fine clothes, and a wide-eyed baby was clutched against her, but she managed to look regal nonetheless.
“Daughter…” She fell into Nokomi’s arms, looking smaller despite being the taller of the two women. They had a moment of silence, until baby Shapur between them began to fuss.
Nokomi whispered to the Empress, but I could hear it easily enough. “Mother, we must flee now. The palace is lost.”
“We still have allies, Nokomi.” Her mother took a step back and stood taller. She tried to look as if she might stand and fight, but it was her pride talking, not hear head.
“Follow me.” I insisted. “We must go now, Empress. There will be time to fight later. If you stay here, Navid will win.”
The Empress regarded my animalistic face with something between fascination and surprise. She most certainly recognized me, but stories of what I might have been clearly had not prepared her for the ugly truth of it. I couldn’t help but grin at her, knowing what a monster I must look like.
Dog turned toward the end of the hall, where I could hear the sounds of more fighting downstairs and rapidly-approaching footsteps. Empress Anahita looked as if she might argue further, but then she heard the footsteps, too.
“Give the baby to Nokomi.” I ordered her. “You need to be able to run.” Her dress wasn’t exactly conducive to running.
Any other time, she might have looked askance at me for giving her orders, and rightfully so, but she did as told this once. Nokomi took the baby and the sling it was in, putting it around her shoulders. She cradled the child carefully and we made for the stairs to the third floor.
Dog and I led the way, followed by the three women. The Empress and Halina kept Nokomi between them, and the six soldiers, led by Masih, brought up the rear. We nearly reached the stairwell to the third floor without incident, but then soldiers spilled out from the nearest landing, coming from the ground floor.
“To arms!” Masih called, drawing his blade once more.
All six men formed a wall at the bottom of the stairs, and they backed up one stair at a time, using the high ground to hold the stairs as the ladies and I hurried ahead of them. On those narrow stairs, six stalwart defenders could hold an entire army at bay for some time if they were careful. If they’d had better shields, they might have held even longer.
Babe in arms, Nokomi kept right behind me as we ascended the stairs. Halina pulled the Empress along with her. Anahita was a strong woman, but giving birth and losing her husband in the space of a few days had taken a lot out of her. She suffered Halina’s assistance without complaint, following us into the royal library.
I fought the urge to barricade the doors, but that would have given away the fact that someone had been in here. That, with our apparent disappearance, would likely give away the fact that there was a secret passage hidden within the room, expediting their pursuit of us.
I glanced around at the collection of trophies, books, and scrolls. These were Emperor Baraz’s prized things, his private collection, or at least it had been. Now it was merely another spoil of war. It had been the last place I’d seen the Emperor and Kalb at peace, I thought mournfully. Dog sensed my feelings, whimpering, but urging me on. I nodded to him.
Halina rushed over to the ornamental statue, seeking out a secret lever that was hidden amongst the twist of horns and antlers. With a quick pull, the entire thing slid aside, revealing a passage beneath the pedestal, complete with hidden ladders and dark passages that I hoped would lead to our freedom.
I gave the dark passage a sniff. It was free of the scents of animals or men, so I deemed it safe. “It’s clear.”
“It’s dark.” Halina declared.
I had momentarily forgotten that they couldn’t all see in the dark as well as I could.
“No matter.” Nokomi declared, flicking her finger. A mote of fire born of a speck of blood floated down the passage, gently illuminating as it fell. “You should head down first.” She said to me then.
I stared at her in surprise. I’d planned on being the last one out, so I could guard our retreat.
“You go down first, and then get Dog to jump down to you. After you’re safe, I’ll hand Shapur down to you. Mother and I will follow, and Halina will be last, as she’s the only one who knows how to close it.”
“Can it be closed from the inside?” I asked.
Halina nodded, but her emotions were mixed up, and I could not fully tell if she spoke the truth. I didn’t have time to dwell on it, because the sounds of fighting from the stairs grew louder. Masih and his men would not hold much longer. With a growl, I slid into the hole, grabbing the sides of the ladder and sliding down to the landing below.
Dog’s face appeared in the light of the hole above, and I waved him down. He could not descend, I realized, not as he was, so I shared with Dog then, giving something of my humanity to him. We already shared lifespans and souls, and I often took much of his nature into me, but rarely did I share my humanity with him.
The women stared in shock as Dog shuddered and the toes of his front paws split and elongated. Then his dew claws descended toward his ankles, becoming a simple sort of half-thumb. He shivered, much like he would have had he just taken a bath. Dog backed awkwardly toward the passage, descending tail first, much like a person, if bent over like a man bent from age.
When Dog was safely down, I went back up a few rungs of the ladder, just enough to reach Shapur when he was handed down to me. His eyes flared and he looked as if he were about to cry when he was passed off to a creature such as me, but Nokomi whispered something softly to him in a language I did not understand, and he calmed.
I descended back to where Dog waited for me, holding the child gingerly in my arms, as if I might break him. I’d never held a baby before, and I certainly didn’t want to do it wrong with the Emperor’s heir. Shapur’s eyes flared with inner light as he stared back at me, as transfixed by my yellow as I was with the dancing light within his innocent eyes.
When the Empress and Nokomi had followed us down into the passage, using sparks of light to illuminate the way, I handed the baby back to Nokomi. Then, Halina began to close the passageway.
“She’s staying behind!” I shouted in alarm, louder than I probably should have.
“It’s her duty.” Nokomi remarked sadly. She nodded up to her handmaiden, who she’d likely never see again alive. They were not family, but they were certainly friends, despite the differences in their ranks and positions.
“We’ve lost so many.” I protested weakly. Dog whined at my side.
There was a scuffling noise above. I heard Halina say something and an agitated response. Halina slid down into the passage abruptly, all but falling down the ladder. I steadied her at the bottom, helping her regain her feet. The pedestal above us closed fully, plunging us into darkness. Footsteps led rapidly away from the room then, followed by shouting.
“What was that?” I hissed.
“It was Masih. He closed it. He saved me.” Halina whispered, her voice both shocked and relieved. She broke into a sob.
Halina had been prepared to die just then, I realized. I hadn’t even noticed. That only marked how tired I really was. My senses were failing me in my exhaustion.
The Empress held up her hand then, casting firelight around the room. A puddle of blood sat upon her palm, burning softly. Like a wick burning within a pot of oil, it burned slowly, rather than consuming all of its fuel all at once.
“We need to keep moving. We need a place outside of the palace, somewhere safe.” The Empress said, taking the lead now that we’d gotten her this far.
“You know a place, don’t you, Go?” Nokomi whispered, her eyes bright and wide in the near darkness.
I nodded. “There is a family I trust.”
“You will put their lives at risk if they aid us.” The Empress warned me. “Are you willing to do that? Will they be willing to shelter us if they know what could happen to them?”
“He sheltered me as a child. He will do it again.” Dog gave a noise of agreement. “When we leave the city, we will take them with us. We have no choice for now.”
I didn’t want to lose any other friends, not after all of this. I’d make them come with me. I’d convince them one way or another.
“Lead on, then.” The Empress ordered.
National Novel Writing Month 2019: The Emperor's Dogs