Nasha and her falcon continued to study us as we approached. She seemed to sense our intent, for she turned and started up the hillside to get some privacy while we spoke. Atop the hill, she turned back toward me once more, giving me another of those looks like I was a meal about to be enjoyed.
Her expressions were quite similar to those of her falcon, which turned its head so it could watch us with one of its eyes. Looking more closely at her, I saw that she resembled her bonded animal quite closely, especially in the eyes. Even her features were sharp, with an aquiline nose that was a bit too strong for her face.
She looked me over as I had her, and I wondered how much Dog and I resembled each other in her eyes. Did we have many of the same mannerisms? Dog and I looked at one another, and his tongue lolled out. I certainly didn’t do that.
“Can you tell me of your father?” I asked her when we had finished taking a measure of each other.
“My father often spoke to me of you.”
“He did? I am sorry that he never mentioned you.” I regretted saying it, but dogs have an abrupt and honest manner about things.
She shook her head, unoffended by my remark. “He wanted to keep me a secret. Only the Empress knew of my existence, but she only knew that he had a daughter. He never told her about my abilities. He feared that if the Emperor knew of my abilities, he’d call me into his service. After serving for as long as he did, my father had no need for money, and only wished for me to be free.”
“I am sorry that I could not save him. I was there that day. He fell protecting the Emperor, but I had to save the others in the royal family. It was my duty.”
She blinked slowly and deliberately. “I know. He told me when he gave me the sword.”
I wasn’t even sure how to respond to that. Dog settled in at my feet, sitting on his haunches and staring at the falcon. The bird cocked his head to regard Dog.
I watched the bird for a moment, then decided to risk a question that might have been rude. “Is it strange having a bird, rather than a dog?”
“Is it strange having a dog rather than a bird?” She countered, smiling slightly. “If anything, Zephyr’s maleness is stranger to me than the fact that he is a bird.”
It must be very interesting. A bird’s thoughts and views of the world must be vastly different from ours. “I’ve heard of others of the Old Blood being bonded with a horse or a fox, but never a bird.”
“Birds are not dogs. Father found it hard to relate to me.” She admitted.
“He was not a man that many felt close to, except perhaps the Emperor.” I offered.
“The Emperor knew him better than any of us.” She agreed, but she did not seem sad about it. She must have come to terms with it some time ago.
“But your father’s death? How did he pass in the end? I would have thought that the explosion would have killed him. How is it that he was able to survive to give you the weapon?”
“Teeth sheltered my father with his heavy body, shielding him from most of the blast.” Nasha turned away, so I could not see the complex emotions that crossed her face. She took a deep breath before continuing with a shaky voice, “Before he died, Teeth let his spirit go, entering my father. He was badly wounded, but for a brief moment, they were two creatures in one body, and that was enough for him to escape.”
I stared at her in surprise. Dog barked, as if he, too, could not believe what he was hearing. “He could do that? That’s possible?”
She shook her head. “Not really, not for long. It was a desperate thing, a last breath of life to pass his final words on to me. Teeth’s body was burnt beyond recognition, but even that massive dog hadn’t been able to cover him completely. My father was burned badly, barely alive.”
I shook my head, disliking this story. It was worse than I’d expected. Burns were bad, and losing your dog was even worse. Teeth’s noble sacrifice brought a lump to my throat.
When I said nothing, she continued. “That home that you saw when you escaped the palace through the tunnels was mine. Father fled there, taking what was left of the Emperor’s sword with him. He told me to find you, to help you and the Princess, to serve you two as he had served the Emperor in his life. My father died in my arms, burnt and completely spent for this kingdom. Even his last words were in service to the Emperor and his family.”
She bowed her head then, finally done. Her shoulders bowed under the weight of a lifetime of prospective service. I would’ve reached out to her, to offer her comfort, but I sensed that this was something she did not need, not from me. She was not Nokomi, and I didn’t know how to relieve her burden, except to tell her what I knew.
“The Princess would never hold you to that. You needn’t give your entire life for this. She would not take something not freely given.”
“I must.” She said. “This is my father’s dying wish.”
“Damn his wishes!” I shouted, startling her and her bird. “He can’t tell you what to do from beyond the grave any more than he can tell me what to do now.”
“I can’t…” She hesitated.
“You can.” I insisted. “Your only duty is to your pack.”
She shook her head. “I’m not a dog, Go. I don’t have a pack like you.”
I shrugged. It didn’t matter what she called it, she had one, even if she didn’t know it yet. “Then call it your flock, your family, or whatever you want. You must seek out those who complete you, and you must fight for them. Let no one else turn you away from that.”
“And the princess, is she part of your pack?” Nasha studied me carefully.
“Nokomi?” I smiled. “She is my pack, along with Dog. They are all that matter. I may love and help some of these others, but there are none I put before them.”
Dog barked in agreement. She smiled down at him.
“A pack… a flock of my own. I would like that.”
“Seek them out.” I suggested.
She looked at me, a resolute, confident look in her eyes. I realized in that moment that she was actually younger than she looked. Beyond that, she had likely not seen much of the world beyond that small estate that Kalb had left for her. She had been sheltered and left in a peaceful hideout from the world, a place where concerns could not touch her – until now.
“I believe I shall.” She announced. “But first, I would like to honor my father’s wish and see Princess Nokomi safely back home.”
“Nokomi will gladly accept your help. I’m sure of it. Zephyr might prove a valuable asset. And when it’s all done, you must look for those who offer you a complete life, the other parts of your pack.”
“Flock.” She corrected, smiling.
I didn’t argue that. Instead, we took in the breeze and the view around us in silence, absorbing details in ways that only our kind could appreciate.
National Novel Writing Month 2019: The Emperor's Dogs