Adish opened the door with a lantern held up, finding me standing in the dark alley outside of his home. Nokomi had known roughly where he lived, but it had been Dog’s keen sense of smell that had led us through the alleyways to his door.
Thankfully, we’d been given cloaks by the master gardener to conceal ourselves with as we’d fled. That quiet old man had almost seemed to expect us during the chaos back at the palace. He’d worked quickly to smuggle us out through a passage under the palace walls that I hadn’t known of and would never have thought to look for.
The passage had been dark and poorly maintained. It had likely been years since any had thought to check it for soundness, but it had not collapsed. That was not something I ever would have wished to discover, though I had certainly imagined it when we’d crawled through those claustrophobic tunnels. Trapped in dead-end passage, Navid could have easily smoked us out, filled us with arrows, or sent a blast of fire down the passage to roast us all alive. It hadn’t come to that though.
We’d passed a few blocks south of the palace and emerged in a small shed on the grounds of a modest estate, exiting through a cleverly-hidden door that I doubted the occupants even knew about. There were only two candle lights in the second floor of the estate, and everything was terribly quiet.
Even so, I’d carefully lifted Dog up onto the wall surrounding the estate. He’d hopped down by himself, and, once he’d scouted it out and decided it was safe, I’d lifted the ladies up onto the wall as well. I had them crouch low on the wall’s top until I could climb over myself, and get down to help each of them down in turn.
After that, we’d kept to the shadows. We’d avoided a few patrols, each one creating a frightening few moments as we wondered if we’d be discovered and have to dispatch of them before they could raise the alarm and bring an entire army down on us. This time, I doubted there would be another favorable intervention, and none of us had much energy left with which to fight.
After what was seemingly hours, Nokomi’s memory and Dog’s nose had led us here, to the stoop of the only family I felt I could trust in the whole kingdom at that very moment.
Adish blinked at me, taking in my face in the low lighting. I’d allowed much of my humanity to return, but there was still something wild about it, inhuman for sure. My eyes were still those of a canine, and the tears on my cheeks from where my jaws had split them open were red, open wounds. They’d probably leave permanent scars when they healed – if they healed.
Adish’s tongue caught in his mouth, and his eyes widened. He made as if to back away, but I caught his wrist with my clawed hand. “Adish.” I growled.
A look of recognition crossed his features, and some of the fear faded. “Go? Is that you? What has happened to you? Who are these with you?” He looked past me at the hooded figures that hunched beside the building.
Nokomi lowered her hood and nodded to Adish, who knew who she was instantly. I hissed, and she quickly covered her head once more.
“Come in, come in quickly!” He whispered, stepping aside to let us in.
I waited for the three of them to go in first, following them inside only when I’d cast a look back and forth down the street to make sure no one had marked our arrival. In this, it seemed that the explosions and battles through the street had worked in our favor, since most people were locked in their homes, waiting and hoping for order to return with the rise of the sun.
Adish bolted the door behind us. I noted that it was a solid piece of work, one that would not easily be broken. He’d forged it himself. Dog whined and nosed at Adish.
“Stop, Dog.” I gave him a tug on one of his ears, but he insisted on saying his greetings nonetheless.
Adish laughed quietly, giving Dog a rub on the chest, carefully holding his lantern while doing so. Then, realizing that all of us were standing in the entry waiting for him, he cleared his throat embarrassedly.
“I apologize, Princess Nokomi.” Adish bowed deeply. “Let me see you in. I must wake my wife, so she can help see to your comfort.”
“You needn’t bother her, good sir.” The Empress replied, lowering her hood also now that we were inside.
Adish did a double-take and then shot a dark look at me. I shrugged. It wasn’t as if I was going to announce that the Empress had tagged along for this visit while we’d been standing in the street. Under Nokomi’s cloak, Shapur made a noise.
“Gods! She has the heir under there, doesn’t she?” Adish asked me quietly.
When I nodded, I thought he might pass out. He nearly had the entire royal family in his home, and he was only wearing his sleeping clothes.
Adish ushered us through the entry to his home and into a small sitting room. He set the lantern in the middle of a table, and we could see the entire room. The room was comfortably-sized, but modest. It had been decorated with simple, but well-made furniture. Pieces of art clearly made by children’s hands adorned the wall.
“I must wake my wife, or she’ll be quite incensed with me, I fear.” Adish apologized.
“She may be either way.” The Empress offered, smiling and patting his hand familiarly.
Adish let out an uncharacteristic nervous giggle, nodded, and vanished into a side room though a hall that smelled as if it also included a kitchen.
Halina shrugged off her cloak and sank into one of the chairs. She placed one of her long knives on the table in front of her and refused to take her hand off of it. She looked exhausted, but I knew there was no way she would sleep.
The Empress helped her daughter remove her cloak, something Halina should have done, but none begrudged her a moment to sit in peace. Something was clearly on her mind.
Shapur, emerging from the dark beneath the cloak, kicked and wriggled anxiously. He seemed to like the light from the lantern, for he kept reaching toward it. Nokomi laughed at that, but showed no fear of him getting burned. Only the most intense fires could hurt one of her family.
The Empress took her child then, transferring the sling from her daughter back to her own shoulders after she’d settled onto one of the dark wood chairs that surrounded the slatted table. She offered Shapur her breast, which he took to greedily.
“He seems quite alert for a child his age.” I commented. I’d always heard that children rarely did more than eat and sleep for the first few weeks of their lives, but Shapur was quite active.
“Babies in our family become aware much sooner than most.” The Empress agreed, smiling softly down at her child. It was a tender, sweet moment in the midst of all that had happened.
I watched Nokomi move behind Halina. She put a comforting hand on Halina’s shoulder, and Halina began to shake. I must have truly been at the end of my limits, because it took me a moment to realize that Halina was crying. Nokomi sank beside her, wrapping her arms around her handmaiden. The Empress watched with a carefully neutral look on her face.
“Was it Masih?” I asked.
Nokomi shot me a look, as if I were insensitive for bringing him up. I lifted my hands and shrugged.
Something about how he’d suddenly saved us and sent Halina down the escape passage had stuck with me. I replayed our meeting outside the Empress’ room in my head, realizing that, while he had indeed been comforted by the Princess’ presence, it had actually been Halina’s approach that had put the guardsman at ease with a creature such as I.
Halina nodded, and spoke through tears. “He and I, we were close.”
I withheld any comment, though I knew that Halina was much younger than guardsman was, or than he had been. I doubted he still lived. He didn’t seem like the type to stay alive long enough to betray her or us. No, I suspected he’d died valiantly, making sure he could not give up our secrets.
“My goodness, so many people here at this hour!” Sherine’s voice carried from the hall. She might have just gotten up, but she had a nice dress on, probably the finest she owned, and her hair had been quickly but skillfully tied up.
I smiled at the woman, remembering her kind words, kinder voice, and excellent cooking from my childhood. She looked older now, but her kind eyes had not changed. My stomach growled, as did Dog’s beside me. Sherine snorted a laugh, clearly well-acquainted with hungry men. She did have three boys to feed, as well as a young girl now.
Sherine came over to present herself to the Empress, curtsying and bowing her head. “Mistress, I am called Sherine. Welcome to our humble home.”
“None of that now.” The Empress shook her head and reached out for Sherine’s hand with one of her own, the one that wasn’t holding Shapur. “We are imposing on your home. In your own home, you are the Empress, not I, and we deeply appreciate your shelter.”
Sherine raised her eyes and smiled at that. The two women were of a similar age, but the similarities ended there. They were of different backgrounds and lineages. Anahita’s breeding showed on her fine features and stature, a warrior mother. On the other hand, Sherine was beautiful in a matronly way, making her a great match for Adish.
Sherine eyed Shapur in that loving, knowing way that mothers looked upon each other’s babies with, as if the two women were part of a special club that one such as I could never understand. Truthfully, I doubted I ever could understand what it meant, and I did not try.
My stomach growled again, of its own accord. “I promise you, I have no control over that.” I offered apologetically.
Sherine’s eyes took in my face with pity and concern, but no fear. “Adish, see to his wounds!” She ordered her husband, though he was still in the other room. “I will see to their stomachs.”
“We couldn’t impose.” Nokomi looked worried to bother the woman, but Sherine shook her head and walked off, rolling up her sleeves.
Adish made himself present rather quickly after being called. He had dressed properly and had splashed a little water on his face. He moved nervously, carrying a small bundle of bandages and assorted medicinal unguents.
At the doorway to the kitchen, where a lamp was now lit, Sherine cleared her throat. Adish nodded and sketched a hasty bow to the Empress, pointedly keeping his eyes averted from her face or the feeding child. He was a polite, careful man. He did the same twice more to the other ladies, not knowing that Halina was only a handmaiden, and probably not caring either way.
“Thank you for having us in your home, Master Adish.” The Empress offered warmly. Shapur had finished feeding, so she fastened the clasps of her dress once more and transferred him to her shoulder to burp him.
“Please let me know if there is anything we can do to make your visit more comfortable.” Adish offered a warm smile, still not meeting her eyes.
“Your wife is seeing to our bellies, so if you could see to Captain Goren’s injuries, it would be most appreciated.”
Adish nodded, and turned to me. It was only then that I pulled back my hood and sat down, so he could get a better look at me.
“Gods...” Adish just stared at me. “What has happened to you, Go?”
I shook my head and spoke carefully, for my face truly ached now. “There is more to my story than you know, Adish.”
He took one of my hands in his own to inspect it. “Like yellow eyes and claws?”
I laughed, but it hurt to do so, and I cut it short. “There is a bit of Dog’s nature in me. There always has been, ever since I was a child.”
Adish regarded me skeptically at first, but seeing the remnants of my animal side on my features still, the tips of my ears, the sharpness of my teeth, and the sharpness of my fingertips, he began to believe. “The dog soldiers? The ones that serve the Emperor? You are one of them, from the Old Blood?”
“You have heard of us?” I was surprised.
Adish dabbed gently at my face with a dampened cloth, cleaning away crusted blood, dust, and bits of gravel. He winced as he regarded the tears at the corners of my mouth. Taking a bit of salve on his fingers, he began to work it around the wounds. “There are stories they tell, but I didn’t believe any of them. I’d just assumed they were tales of the sort that drunken men made up to frighten and entertain each other, exaggerated truths at best.”
“If you’ve seen one of us, truly, you would know that any stories they tell are not nearly frightening enough.” I replied.
Dog licked at Adish’s hands while he worked on my wounds. When I was hurt, Dog felt it. The opposite was also true, so he also benefited from the relief I was feeling. The numbing, cooling feeling of the ointment was almost pleasurable, but not nearly so nice as the smells that were coming from the kitchen.
Adish quietly finished cleaning me up as best he could, but suggested that I might want to use an ewer of water in the next room to clean myself up more. He had already prepared a set of his too-large clothes for me, but I suspected that any clean clothes, even the wrong size, would feel wonderful.
I wanted to argue, to tell him that we couldn’t stay, but Nokomi nodded to me. After all, Adish had the others’ wounds to see to as well. Halina, the Empress, and Nokomi all had their own cuts, scrapes, and bruises, as well as some burns.
I relented, letting them go about caring for their wounds while I retreated to the next room. I found it to be filled with two sleeping boys, or at least boys who pretended to sleep and kept peeking at me through half-closed eyes whenever they thought I wasn’t looking. I played along, letting Adish’s boys bother Dog while I cleaned myself up.
When I turned back around, I found the two boys sitting up on their sleeping mats. They were staring at me in something between fascination and disgust. They had probably never seen someone so badly wounded before. I could feel the mass of bruises on my body, some from the changes I’d endured, but many from the explosion, and that didn’t even count the arrow I’d taken through the forearm or the other cuts and wounds I bore.
“How did you get hurt?” Radwan, the younger, asked, almost afraid of the answer. His older brother, Jahan, nudged him with an elbow, although he’d been just as curious to ask.
“I fought a lot of bad men today.” I replied simply. I pulled on their father’s clothes. Without their father’s broad shoulders and large muscles, the clothes were much too large for me, but they were clean.
They turned their attention back to Dog then, petting him and brushing the dust and crumbling, scabbed blood out of his fur. I helped them, showing them how to care for my friend. A wet rag did much to clean him up, and Dog snorted appreciatively.
“Did any of them die?” Jahan asked, unable to take his eyes off my fingertips.
I thought about how to answer. “Sometimes, good men and bad men get hurt. I serve the Emperor, so I try to make sure that good men get hurt less than the bad men.”
I heard Sherine near the door, and I could hear from her breathing that she approved of my answer. She stepped into the doorway and gave her boys a look that said they should be asleep, though we all knew that there was no way the boys would sleep through something like this. “Your meal is ready.” She announced, and I watched her expression soften upon seeing me dressed in her husband’s clothes.
“What is it?” I asked her.
“Would that the world were simpler, that you could have remained at my husband’s forge. We might have had a life like this, together.”
I shook my head. Wishes like that were useless, if sweet. “It was not to be, Sherine.”
She nodded, sniffing sadly. “What now, then?”
I stepped over to her, moving into the hallway. Dog followed reluctantly, having enjoyed the attention from the boys. I closed the door behind me and lowered my voice. “The Emperor is dead, Sherine. His brother, General Navid, had him killed. He got tired of waiting for his chance on the throne, a chance that would never come with Shapur as heir.”
Her hand went to her mouth. “Then none of us are safe here, are we?”
“I had nowhere else to go, Sherine. I am sorry.” I bowed my head.
“I am not faulting you, Go. I am glad that you brought them here. My parents told me of the war, when Emperor Baraz and his kin came to our lands. I know what happens to women and children when a kingdom topples. I would not wish that on any, certainly not that family out there.”
“But we will have to run away, Sherine. All of us, including you and your family.”
Sherine took a breath and stared at me resolutely. “Homes can be rebuilt. Families cannot. We will do what we must.”
Nokomi cleared her throat from back by the kitchen. She’d heard everything. “Let me help you with the food, Sherine. It is the least I can do for all that we’re inconveniencing you.”
“Alright then, Princess.” Sherine smiled wistfully. “Let’s see about filling some bellies. I fear we’re going to need a lot of energy if we’re going to flee the city.”
We ate then, and while it hurt my mouth to eat, it tasted better than anything I remembered, better even than the street merchant’s roasted rat Dog and I had loved when we were young.
Afterward, we spoke at length and planned our escape from the city. Adish’s children came out to join us eventually, unable to sleep with the excitement of late night company. The Empress was joyed to meet their little girl, Jaleh, most of all. She loved their kind, curious little boys, but she had a spot in her heart for girls, having had two of them for so many years.
Shapur was passed around to sleep fitfully on this shoulder or that, although he seemed to sleep best on Adish’s broad shoulder. I smiled at that, for the three-time father beamed while holding the baby. In that moment, for just a brief second, I thought I saw a bit of the Emperor in him. They’d both had three children, and I pondered the thought that maybe ranks and stations had not made the two men so different after all, not when they were both fathers.
I fell asleep at some point, surrounded by the voices of those I considered my family and my pack, and that night of pain, death, and suffering finally ended.
National Novel Writing Month 2019: The Emperor's Dogs