Tiny’s humble home turned out to be a tent city contained within a small depression that surrounded the entrance to a shallow cave that served as Tiny’s treasury and home. Dozens of tents in a rainbow of colors, mostly faded from the harsh sun, were gathered on either side of a narrow path that led right up to the cave.
Tallow candles on stolen candelabras lit the cave, which was deep enough to shelter everyone in case of a sandstorm, if not the animals. Within the cave were disorderly piles of supplies and random treasures in a mismatch of crates, barrels, and bags. Most of the collection was mundane, but a few items were actually quite extravagant. Tiny and his settlement lived a life of relative comfort with what they’d found, captured, and scavenged.
He’d explained many of these riches initially as plunder from his raids, but we’d since come to understand his business model, which was to work as an escort for merchants who couldn’t afford their own troops of guards as they crossed the deserts on the trade roads to neighboring cities and kingdoms. They also preyed upon the bandits that plied the roads, attacking only those who attacked and stole from the innocent.
Tiny’s code of honor as the Lord of the Vultures had earned him a pass from the Emperor. They’d actually met once or twice, to my surprise. He had full license to continue what he was doing, proven by a writ issued by the Emperor himself, which Tiny kept carefully stored in a scroll case at the back of his cave.
There were several other such encampments within a few days’ journey of the capitol, we’d learned. All told, he could call several hundred scavengers and warriors to his side, which was not a large army, but it was a force to be reckoned with if used properly. Securing the rest of the army we needed to retake the palace would likely fall on me.
Our entourage had fallen into an easy routine since arriving. The Empress took at least one meal every day with Lord Zamir, as she insisted upon calling him, so they could get a further measure of each other and hash out the details of recompense for his assistance in the days to come. Nokomi and Halina joined them more often than not. Together, they dictated notes, which were tied to the ankles of the desert birds that Tiny used to keep in touch with the other camps.
Sherine had quickly become something of a camp mother. Having raised three children on her own, as well as having been something of a foster mother to less-fortunate neighborhood children such as I had been, she’d quickly set about mending garments, making poultices for scrapes, and doing any number of other motherly kindnesses. Her youngest two stayed at her side, when they weren’t playing with the dozen or so camp children. There were few women in the camp, and this was not a place designed for raising children, and the other mothers greatly appreciated Sherine’s efforts. Even the women from the palace pitched in where they could, proving that they were not too good for any sort of menial labor given them.
Adish and Barid had found a simple forge in the camp. Working together, they’d gathered and stacked rocks to improve the furnace structure, and then they’d improved the bellows with what materials they’d found. Then they’d set Jahan to gathering wood for making charcoal, as much as they could make. It burned hotter than the dried discs of camel dung they frequently used for fuel. Apparently, there was no need to worry about anyone seeing smoke this far out from the city. Even if someone did see it, they were not likely to investigate, and Tiny’s army of followers was quite capable of dissuading anything short of a large army from approaching too near their camp.
When we were not catching up with Tiny or attending strategic planning meetings, Dog and I spent our hours patrolling. Tiny and I had little enough to say to each other. Unlike the pleasant reminiscing I’d done with Legs weeks back, Tiny had few memories of his days at the Kennel worth remembering, and I was a reminder of everything wrong that had happened to him there. We gave each other space, though we were polite and friendly when we were together around others.
Patrolling was our duty, or so Dog and I told ourselves, but the truth was things were changing for us. After being away from the city for even a few days, it quickly became apparent that we were meant to be around less people. We might have fit in well enough in the army or in the Emperor’s service, but that was not how we wanted to live. Whether there were a few of Tiny’s scouts with us or not, it was far more peaceful in the desert than in the noisy encampment, although we could not help but wish to have Nokomi beside us.
She must have felt the pull to be together also, for she managed to sneak away from her duties to her family within the camp at least once a day. Drawing on our bond, she was easily able to find us, no matter where we were sitting and staring at the desert.
Nokomi seemed to sense our dislike of the crowds, but she didn’t understand the reasons behind it. “You are spending a lot of time alone, staring out at these changeless lands.”
She sat with Dog between us. Our hands reached over Dog, resting on his back, so we could feel each other’s hand and the reassurance that simple touch gave.
“These lands always change, but the changes are subtle. The way the dunes and hills look today will not be the same tomorrow.” I replied as my fingertips explored the lines of her fingers.
“No matter how the hills change shape, they are still just piles of sand.” She replied.
I laughed at that. She was right, even if she missed the point. “It’s still different.”
“And what of us?”
I looked over at her, squinting to avoid the sun over her shoulder. “What of us?”
“What changes are there in store for us? How are we different from day to day?”
“I live and die for you, Nokomi, the same as ever. If I can regain your home for you and the throne for your brother, then that is well. I just want to be beside you.”
She studied my face for a long moment, trying to hear what was implied but not said. “But you would rather we didn’t go back?”
“You and Neema are both behind Shapur in the line for the throne, despite his age. You have the least claim on the throne, so you have the least reason to return. Yet you belong with your family, and I can’t fault you for going with them.” I said softly.
“And you? Where do you belong?” She asked.
I didn’t even need to think before answering. “With you. Always with you, Nokomi.”
Her hand tightened on mine at my answer. “Where could we go, if we left right now?”
I shook my head. “I own nothing. We would live as fugitives in your own kingdom, as paupers in a neighboring land, or as the Lord of Vultures does, a brigand and sell-sword in the desert. Those are no life for you.”
“Do you understand why I have to go back, Go? And don’t tell me that it is for my position in line for the crown or because my family is going back.”
“You’re going back for revenge.” I answered. Dog looked up at us, whining.
She moved her hand away from mine to offer Dog a comforting scratch between the ears. “You killed the boy who murdered Tiny’s dog, right?”
“Drum. Yes, I ripped his throat out with my own bare hands… my claws. Your father watched and approved.”
“But you put him down for your own reasons, and you would have whether my father allowed it or not.”
“Yes.” I admitted.
“Then you know what I must do to my uncle. It is not for my brother, my mother, or even my sister to do. It is for me. I know I was not supposed to know that father loved me most, but I felt it. That is why it is for me to finish this. I will feel his throat under my own hands.” Her angry eyes were blazing, though they glittered with unshed tears.
“And I will be there to help you get to his throat, Nokomi.” I promised her. “Only, I don’t know where we go after that, the two of us.”
“Let us worry about after when we have reached it, Go. Have you not tried to show me before how dogs live in the present? How they worry about what they can do in the moment, not what is coming on the morrow?”
I nodded, smiling to hear my words given back to me. “And what can we do in the moment?”
She leaned over Dog, who grunted at suddenly being used as a cushion for her elbow. “You can come over here.” She whispered, closing her eyes.
I smiled and put my hand against her cheek, guiding her lips to mine. Dog squirmed to get out from under us, but we ignored him, even when he slipped free of us and stood at attention, looking back in the direction of the camp.
After a sharp bark, I reluctantly pulled away from Nokomi, whose face was so close to mine that I just wanted to stare at it forever, memorizing every last detail, every last eyelash, and every line of her soft lips. Dog wasn’t in the mood to let us be, not with someone approaching. I could hear the soft footfalls on the sand, and I expected it was Jahan, Barid, or even Halina, except that this one smelled different.
I turned and saw a young woman standing several paces away. Curiously, she had a bird resting on her shoulder. She was of an age with Nokomi and I, perhaps a year or two older at most. Her hair fell dark down to her shoulders, her full lips were pursed, and her sharp eyes flashed yellow. In front of her, she carried a twisted piece of metal that I almost recognized.
“Captain Goren? Princess Nokomi?” The girl asked, her voice lilting and high.
“Yes?” Nokomi and I echoed each other, staring at the girl.
The girl quickly dropped to one knee, and the bird on her shoulder flapped its wings and dug into the shoulder pad sewn onto her tunic. While kneeling, she held out two gloved hands and offered up the piece of twisted metal she’d brought with her. “I present you the sword of Emperor Baraz.”
Nokomi stood with surprising speed, hurrying to the girl. She dropped to her knees and reached to receive the ruined weapon. The girl almost lifted her eyes then, but kept her gaze down, even as she was relieved of her burden.
“Who are you?” I asked, but one look at her eyes and I knew. “Those eyes. You are Kalb’s… daughter?”
Nokomi turned to stare at me in surprise. “Kalb has a daughter?”
But once said, the resemblance was impossible to ignore. The girl came to stand once more, dusting off her knee. “He was my father, yes. His dying wish was for me to deliver this sword to Princess Nokomi and then assist Captain Goren in helping the princess achieve her revenge.”
“I will kill my uncle with this very weapon.” Nokomi declared, turning the twisted hunk of metal over in her hands.
“Well, maybe not that exact weapon, but it so happens that Adish is an accomplished smith.” I commented. You couldn’t even cut meat with what was left of the blade. It was a twisted lump of steel.
Dog gave a short bark, and the falcon’s head swiveled his direction. It readjusted its grip on the girl’s shoulder, walking in place and opening its mouth as if to cry out. Dog couldn’t take his eyes off the bird, but made no move to bother it. Something in the falcon’s expression suggested that it would be foolish to attempt anything.
“Then you will accept my service, Princess?” The girl asked. Like the bird, she had a defiant and powerful gaze, as if begging the princess to deny her, just so she could do what she wanted anyway.
Nokomi regarded her, probably wondering why this girl was pledging to her instead of her mother, the Empress. “If I am to accept your service, then I will need a name to call you by, daughter of Kalb…”
“Nasha. My father named my Nasha.” The girl replied, and like that, Nokomi had found herself another soldier in her war against her uncle.
The better question was how she’d found us and how she’d managed to evade Tiny’s soldiers. Apparently, Tiny was thinking the same thing, if the yelling from down in the tent city was any indication.
National Novel Writing Month 2019: The Emperor's Dogs