“Must you go?” Nokomi asked. It was the closest she’d allow her voice to get to actual pleading.
I met her eyes and nodded. “I must try to meet with some of the others before I go. They must know that we have not given up, that we will gather our forces and rally against Navid.”
She put her hand on my forearm. “You are hurt. It is not safe for you to go.”
“It is not safe to not go, Nokomi. You know that we will need every soldier we can find, and the Emperor’s Dogs…” It felt strange to call them that still with the Emperor dead. “They are worth more than any other soldier we can find.”
She withdrew her hand and folded her arms across her chest, turning away from me. “I know what you say is true, but I wish you could stay. We only just escaped with our lives, and you’re ready to throw caution to the wind and run back out there.”
I reached for her, hesitating, my fingertips stopping just shy of her shoulder. Gone were my claws, but the scabbed ends of my fingers were not pretty, and they were a definite reminder that she and I were very different creatures. “I wish I could stay, but this must be done.”
“Sometimes, I wish we could just run away, be done with all of this – the expectations, the roles, the fighting.” She sighed.
“Without being who you are and me being who I am, we’d never have met, Princess.” I said softly. I placed my hand on her shoulder then, finding my bravery, if just for that moment.
She covered my hand with her own, and looked back over her shoulder at me. I watched those warm eyes for a long moment, but Dog came between us then, literally. He began nosing at the both of us for attention, as if she and I weren’t allowed to touch if he wasn’t involved.
I snorted a laugh, which pulled at the wounds on my cheeks. Halina had offered to stitch them up, but I had a suspicion that stitches might make future changes harder. I didn’t know when I would have to go that far into the beast again, and I wanted nothing holding me back when the time came.
“Be quick and be safe.” Nokomi smiled down at Dog, giving him her hand to sniff. “Both of you.”
“Actually, I’ll be going alone.” I said quickly.
“What?” She stared at me as if I were truly a strange creature in that moment, and that was saying something.
“I need to go on the rooftops, and Dog would just slow me down. I don’t plan on going far or going for long. This is something I can do by myself.”
“You can do that? Aren’t you just a normal person without him beside you?”
I smiled at that thought, that I would ever be normal. “We’ve been practicing being apart, so it should not present any issues. Dog and I are bonded whether he is right next to me or not, but great distances would make things more difficult.”
“I will keep Dog company then, while we wait for your return.” Nokomi offered, kneeling to get at Dog’s level. She hid her worries by paying attention to Dog, instead of letting me see the concern on her face.
“I’m sure he’ll appreciate that. As will I.” I reached for my cloak then, which Sherine had hung on a peg near the entry.
“Go.” Nokomi said my name softly.
I pulled the cloak around my shoulders and looked back to her, finding her suddenly very near to me. There was a strange light in her eyes, worry and something else.
She reached out, grabbing the front of my shirt and pulling my face down to hers. Her lips pressed gently against mine in a chaste but affectionate gesture. I smiled against her mouth, and she opened her eyes, a hint of merriment dancing in them. My cheeks flushed, and I kissed her back for real, my hands seizing her waist and holding her against me.
“Come back to us.” She whispered when we broke apart.
“I will.” I nodded. “Bolt the door behind me.”
Dog whined softly, sharing his concerns, but he knew I would be as safe as possible.
I opened the door and slid out, not trusting myself to look back at her. Instead, I disappeared into the darkness, waiting only until I heard the door bolt before I vanished into the neighboring alleys.
I crept along, searching for the best place to ascend. I found such a place not far down the street and made my way up three floors using windowsills, balconies, ledges, and clotheslines to reach the top of the building. I moved atop the building quietly, heading for the edge, where I could peer out across the city.
The palace was ablaze with the light of many signal fires and torches. Much of the rest of the city, perhaps in response, was uncharacteristically dark. On the far horizon, I could see just the barest hints of dawn creeping into the night sky. I would have to hurry, or I would not make it back home before dawn, and I didn’t want to risk being spotted.
I made my way across the rooftops, sometimes descending a level, only to climb back once more once I’d reached the next block. With my thoughts still on Dog and our connection, I was able to tap into our shared abilities, and so I could leap across spans that no normal man could have cleared. This helped to make sure that my meeting would not be observed by others, not unless they had the same powers as I did. I arrived first, or so I thought. Two figures emerged from the shadows shortly after I arrived.
One of them was Scar. His face was twisted in a nasty grin. Then again, most of his smiles looked pretty gruesome. “I never thought I’d get the drop on you. Dog must be far away from you, if your senses are this dull.”
I said nothing until I could see the other person clearly. To my surprise, it was Sardar. He had been the first boy taken to the Kennel, where he had spent several years as their chief experiment. Much had happened to him in the years he had been there, including the death of his dog, and a subsequent bonding to the dog of another Old Blood child who had died tragically.
“Sardar.” I nodded to him.
“Go.” He replied smoothly. He had a peculiar, detached manner about him. He and the pack he’d made at the Kennel had always acted as one.
“Are there others coming?” I asked.
Scar shook his head. “Not yet. We haven’t had time. I’ll get more, but it won’t be easy. They’re on the lookout around the city for men with dogs.”
“They don’t know we can separate yet.” I surmised.
That was good. It gave us an advantage. Unfortunately, few of the Old Blood could go as far from their dogs as I could and still draw upon their abilities. I was certain that Scar and Sardar both had their dogs within a block or two of this building, perhaps even in the building itself.
“Just tell us where we should meet you.” Sardar replied, but there was something about the way he said it that sounded wrong to me.
I tried not to shift into a more guarded stance, but it was difficult. This smelled all wrong, even to my diminished senses. “Sardar? What are you not telling me?”
Scar took two steps toward me, turning on Sardar. He’d noticed it, too, now that I’d said something.
“We serve the Emperor, Go.” Sardar said simply, his hands going palms up as he shrugged.
“The Emperor is dead, betrayed and killed by his brother.” I growled.
Sardar shook his head. “There must be an Emperor. We cannot be a pack without a master.”
“Then serve Go!” Scar shouted.
Sardar shook his head again. “Go is a dog, Scar, not a man. We must serve a man. That was how we were trained.”
“Sardar, the Emperor’s line continues. He has an heir. We must protect and serve him, not the betrayer.”
“That may be true,” Sardar admitted, “but only if the heir is strong enough to take control. Pack Yek will serve the strongest claim.”
“Pack Yek?” Scar spat on the ground. “That is no more. We are all Pack Sefr – All or Nothing. Remember?”
“We do not wish for more bloodshed.” Sardar said apologetically. “But we realize that some is necessary.”
“Then you will not stop us from gathering the other dogs or an army to fight Navid?” I asked.
Sardar shook his head. “We will say nothing. We will wait for the outcome.”
I nodded, taking note of the shadows rising on the roofs of several neighboring buildings. At least six more of Sardar’s old pack mates had surrounded us, but they made no move to stop us or capture us. It was a show of force, of solidarity, so we would not attempt to harm Sardar for delivering this disappointing news.
Sardar bowed. “May the true Emperor win.” He barked, just loud enough to be heard. A chorus of other barks followed from the neighboring rooftops. Then he jumped to the next roof and disappeared into the failing night.
Scar shook his head and watched them go, his hands balled into fists. “All or Nothing. What does it mean to them?” He spat on the ground again. A little of it dribbled on his chin, because of his mouth.
“If they do not wish to fight with us, at least they are not against us. Those ones were always a little different, a breed apart. They are not savage, as we are.”
“It will take savagery to win this, Go. General Navid is a popular man in the army, with many supporters in the city as well. We cannot win by meeting treachery and murder with polite words and wishful thinking.”
“I know, Scar. Believe me. That’s why I will count on you to gather as many of the dogs as you can. Meet me at the Kennel in three weeks.”
“And where will you go?” Scar wondered.
“To meet an old friend with a very large dog.” I replied, grinning.
Scar’s eyebrow rose, not quite getting the reference. But then, he didn’t know everything that I did. I laughed and vanished into the night, hurrying back across rooftops to Nokomi. I took a roundabout route back to Adish’s house, in case I was being followed. The meeting with Sardar had me watching my back even more than before.
Still, I moved with a hurried step. My forehead burned at the memory of her mouth meeting mine, and I couldn’t wait to get back to her. Sardar had never known the truth about me, that I served her and not the Emperor. Had he known, would he have let me go just now? I doubted it.
National Novel Writing Month 2019: The Emperor's Dogs