The desert was an old friend.
I’d spent most of my adult life traversing its unpredictable sands, chasing one enemy or another for Emperor Baraz. It was no different with the royal family in tow. In the desert, you do your best to cross the sands and hazards they hold as quickly as possible, while conserving energy and water when possible. But the desert is a fickle place, and a storm can come up quickly, or the heat can be endless. You watch and wait for something to happen, knowing it is unlikely to occur, but watching lest it catch you unaware. Being unprepared, uninformed, or found lacking in the desert means death more often than not.
Barid had a fair knowledge of many of the major trade routes to neighboring cities, so that, coupled with my own experience and memories of local maps would make the going less treacherous, but no less onerous. Straight out of the city, I did not have the luxury of caution. I had to catch up with the others.
It was nerve-wracking being apart from them. We’d separated at the city, where Halina’s sweet-talking of the city patrol had been their ticket out of the city. They would have failed, had it not been for her. Barid’s own smooth words had not quite been enough to convince the guards as to the need for bringing whole families along with him on a trading run. They’d made it past the checkpoint, and that was all that I’d needed to see.
After that, I’d worked my way through the city using side streets and back alleys. When we approached the gate, I changed clothes and put Dog in a burlap bag. He’d hated it, but dressed like a simple wanderer, I’d managed to leave without question, whereas with Dog walking beside me, I’d likely have been recognized or at least stopped for questioning. I’d had to exit the city heading west, while the others went north.
Dog had been much relieved to be let out of the bag, even if he’d only been in it for a few minutes. I promised him to never do it again, and we had begun the race to catch up to the others. The city was a large thing, and the others had a head start on us. We cut across hours of scrubland to catch up, no easy feat, even if they were only traveling by cart and pony. While Dog and I enjoyed each other’s company, no amount of peace and quiet could have alleviated the terrible anxiety of waiting to see if they’d made it clear of the city without incident.
Yes, they’d been allowed to leave the city, but there was nothing to say a patrol wouldn’t have caught up with them afterward. Bandits could have waylaid them, or any number of other unfortunate things could have occurred to them since we’d split up.
Cresting a rise and seeing the two wagons trudging on had been nearly the best feeling I’d felt in days, other than that moment before I’d gone out on the rooftops and Nokomi had showed me just how much she worried about me. Thinking of that brought an extra layer of warmth to my heat and exertion-warmed face.
Dog yipped excitedly and broke off at a full speed, dodging scraggly bushes, barrel cactuses, and dusky-colored lizards alike as he ran. Even tapping into our shared abilities, I was unable to keep up with him. My feet always sank more deeply into the sand than his capable paws did. He was built for this type of terrain.
We were noticed as we approached, not that Dog’s excited barks or my dessert robes billowing behind me gave us any hope of surprising them. Adish’s children quickly pointed out Dog. They’d been quite taken with him, and they were nearly as eager to have him back at their sides as Nokomi felt to have me beside her once more.
I had felt our bond growing stronger as we’d neared each other, and with that closeness came shared sensations and emotions. I wasn’t sure what all she felt from my side of the bond, but it was not likely much. From me, there was little more than anxiousness, sand, sweat, the oppressive sun, and breathing to take in.
From what I could sense of her, I knew how cramped she’d found the space between the crates, which was oppressively hot and cramped, even after they’d loosened the straps that held the canvas down to let in more air. I had been able to feel the sweat trickling down the nape of her neck as assuredly as if it were my own neck. I knew her left leg was cramping, and her shoulders hurt from the position she was sitting in.
I also knew the crippling fear that had taken her upon learning that we had left her alone. Not alone, truly, but without us, without her pack. Pack was something she’d begun feeling more keenly these last few days. She’d already lost her father and Kalb. Her sister had been captured by her uncle, betrayed by her intended husband. That didn’t even count the number of servants and palace staff she’d been close to that had been killed when Navid had taken the palace, people like Lila or Masih. The potential for also losing me had been more than she could handle. She’d been reduced to tears at feeling the distance in our bond. Her soft crying may not have been heard over the noise of the wagon, but I’d felt it.
She’d had enough when she heard Dog’s approaching barks, and the canvas was peeled back finally for her to climb free. She jumped down, stumbling as her stiff limbs protested at suddenly being put to work after being cramped in that space. Then she came striding across the last twenty or so paces, her sweat-streaked face flushed for half a dozen reasons, some of which she probably didn’t even want to admit.
“How dare you desert me!” She clenched her fists tight and glared at me as Dog jumped and yipped and tried to get her attention. She had none for him at that moment.
I broke into a laugh. It wasn’t funny, not really, but I was out of breath from running, Dog was resorting to all sorts of antics to get her to look at him, and Nokomi looked more out of sorts than I’d ever seen her.
“What’s so funny?” She demanded.
I shook my head, still catching my breath. “I don’t know.” I finally managed.
“Then stop laughing like an idiot and hold me.” She growled.
That, I could do. Talking, not so much. I threw a rough embrace about her and panted, placing my chin on the top of her head.
“You’re sweaty.” She mumbled her complaint against my chest.
“You’re not far behind me.” I replied sweetly, plucking a sweaty strand of her hair from my face.
She pulled away and took a step back, glancing over her shoulder long enough to note that we had an audience, not that there were a lot of other things to look at out here. At least Dog had moved on to more receptive audiences. He was chasing all three of Adish’s kids. With our arrival, everyone had halted and dismounted to stretch legs and relive themselves as needed.
Nokomi leaned in toward me to give me one last warning. “Don’t ever leave me like that. No one told me what was going on until you were gone.”
I gave her an apologetic look. “They would’ve looked for me, and I don’t think that there was room enough for Dog and I in that coach with you.”
“Still. Never do that again, not without telling me first.” She put her hands on her hips and leveled her most regal expression at me.
“Okay.” What else could I say to that?
She reached out and shyly took my hand in hers. That made me smile – inwardly, since my face hurt. She’d just hugged me and publicly declared her affections for me in front of nearly everyone I knew and most of her family, but now she could barely take my hand.
With a gentle tug, she led me back to the others. Barid met my eyes with that sort of look that one young guy gives another when he sees him doing well. I nodded to him, and indicated Halina with a raised eyebrow. She stood nearby him with her arms folded across her chest, watching Nokomi and I. Barid grinned back, but tried to hide the source of his amusement from her when she noticed him smiling. Halina shot me a suspicious look, but I looked away when Nokomi spoke again, this time loud enough for all to hear.
“I believe it’s time for you to tell us where we’re going, Go. You gave Barid general directions, but no specific destination.”
“We’re going to see the Lord of the Vultures.” I answered lightly, as if it were not a big deal.
“What?” Adish looked taken aback. I didn’t blame him, considering that we had his whole family, including the women and children, with us.
“The bandit?” Jahan asked. Even one as young as he had heard of the notorious figure.
“Why would we go to see this man, and who is he?” The Empress asked quickly. Living in the palace, a folk figure like the Lord of Vultures might not be spoken of in front of her, especially if it was something the Emperor hadn’t wanted her to know of.
“He’s a bandit lord, and he travels with a lion the size of a horse!” Jahan filled her in. The young man was grinning madly, clearly imagining meeting the man already.
“It’s not a lion. It’s a dog, and it’s actually closer to the size of a bear.” I remarked calmly, trying to ignore the steadily increasing pressure of Nokomi’s hand upon mine.
Empress Anahita’s expression took on an unpleasant cast. “Explain yourself.”
“I went to school with him. We are old friends.” I explained. “I trust him to shelter us, and, if we can convince him to join our cause, we may very well have an army behind us next time we meet Navid.”
Barid stared at me in wonder and a little bit more respect than he’d had just a moment ago. “You went to school with the Lord of Vultures? Exactly when was that, and what sort of school as this?”
“It was at the Kennel, where boys of the Old Blood were trained to serve the Emperor. He was one of my closest friends until his dog was killed by a boy that became unbalanced. After I ripped out the murderer’s throat for the Emperor, the bereaved boy was able to successfully bond himself to the dead boy’s dog.”
“You killed someone?” Jahan’s jaw dropped. Sherine gave him a look.
Dog gave me a look, and I knew I had to clarify. “Well, it was more for vengeance than for the Emperor, if I’m being honest. He offered me his sword to deal the justice unto the murder, but it was more fitting for a dog to be put down the way I did it.” I elaborated.
Adish looked away, a pained expression crossing his face. He suddenly took to studying the scrubland vegetation instead of me. Beside him, Sherine sighed a motherly sigh, the kind you just couldn’t help doing when a bad child just admitted to doing something far worse than you’d expected of them... and they were proud of it. She gave me a pitying look and led her children aside to go relieve themselves, rather than hear more talk of killing.
“And what makes you think that he would wish to help us? The Empress asked. She had no qualms about the justified killing of a murderer.
“I know Tiny. He will help us.” It was the best answer I had. Regardless of his path since we’d parted ways, he would not harm us. He would either turn us away, or he would join our cause.
“The Lord of the Vultures is named ‘Tiny?’” Barid laughed.
“Yeah, but he’s not so small anymore, so I wouldn’t say that name in earshot of him, unless you want to lose your tongue.” I told him quickly.
“And you trust this man?” The Empress had a lot riding on my word. I was vouching for him, and the safety of her family depended upon it.
I nodded. “We would not be going there if I did not. I swear it to you.”
The Empress looked past me in the direction of the city, frowning. She scanned the horizon, as if searching for other avenues open to her, but we both knew there were none. “Our neighboring kingdoms will hesitate to interfere in what might very well become a drawn-out civil war. We need to act swiftly, or we must flee the country and never look back.”
Nokomi shook her head at that. “I’m not leaving Neema in that monster’s clutches. I’ll see my uncle dead, and maybe Dastan with him.”
“And I am with you, my Princess.” Halina said coldly. “Lila’s death requires blood repayment.”
The Empress smiled at the bloodthirsty women around her. “Then I don’t see as we have much choice but to trust this Lord of the Vultures.”
“Where do we find this friend of yours then?” Nokomi asked.
“We just keep going this way. He’ll find me. He must answer my call.” I smiled. Dog’s tail wagged excitedly. It had been a long time since we’d last seen Tiny.
National Novel Writing Month 2019: The Emperor's Dogs