The worst thing about being in a prison was being left to your own thoughts with nothing to do. On days when we had classes, we were kept too busy and left with too little time to consider our situation. Our days off, which were days seven and eight of the week, we were left to our own devices and our thoughts, many of which weren’t very pleasant.
In our first three days, we’d met with Chahar in both Red and Blue’s classes, and we’d had our solo day with Grey. We were allowed to keep the spare clothes Grey and his team had given us. They were to be kept separate and only worn at his classes. The rest of the time we were in the Kennel, we had to dress in whatever we’d worn at the time of our capture. For most of us, we owned little more than rags. Again, we were faced with our dual natures: that of being wild beasts and that of being men (when it was necessary).
Day four brought us back to Red’s class. Once more, we fought, grappled, did exercises, and participated in weapons training. This time, we had to face off Pack Do, which I’d learned was the second oldest group of recruits in the building. There were only four of them, as with our pack. But, they all had another year of training than us, and, with their scarred leader, the four of them were supposedly nearly on par with Pack Yek’s eight members. Pound-for-pound, this was the fiercest, strongest pack in the Kennel.
They mopped the floor with us. It wasn’t even close. We were all beaten severely in every exercise. With the control they had over their bodies and the precision and speed with which they attacked, they were unbeatable as we currently stood. Even Killer, strong was he was, could not quite keep up with them. Legs and Tiny took the worst beatings of the day, and my own treatment was only slightly better, possibly because of the reputation I’d gathered after my first lessons with both Red and Blue.
I saw a little disappointment in the eyes of my fellow pack mates as I was handed defeat after defeat. They clearly expected me to be some sort of unstoppable force, and that was something I’d probably brought upon myself. It made for a quiet dinner that night. We took turns massaging our hurts with the liniments and bandages that were in the bottom of our basket.
The next day we were back to Blue, again with Pack Do. We fared a little better in the King of the Hill game Blue prepared for us, if only a little. The four of us were placed atop a pyramid made of wooden pallets and covered with dirt. The pyramid was only a few steps high, not even as tall as I was. The four of us perched atop it, each pack member guarding the approach from their direction.
Pack Do logically picked on Tiny’s side of the pyramid, seeing how small he and L.D. were. When we shifted to help, Scar would attack from the distracted side, and we’d fail. Knocked from the top of the pyramid, the four of us would see our roles reversed. Now, we had to be the aggressors. Only, Scar’s team was far harder to take down than we were.
Scar’s second-in-command, a red-haired boy aptly named Red, was nearly his equal. He had a long-haired dog with a reddish coat that matched his own locks of reddish-orange hair. The dog wasn’t nearly as aggressive as Scar’s black beast, but the red dog was large enough that only Killer’s dog could counter him. Tiny and Legs were little help in this exercise. We tried baiting our opponents down with L.D.’s tenaciousness and Legs’ speed, but they weren’t going to fall for such obvious ploys. Headlong attacks, even focused on one side of the pyramid, often failed. We just weren’t strong enough.
Again, we endured the shame of failure. We ate in silence that night, too. Thankfully, there were more medicines and creams in the basket that night. They were more welcome than the sweet treats at the bottom of the basket, which seemed to lose their savor in the face of back-to-back defeats.
Day six brought us back to Red for a lesson in battle against Pack Se. The five of them with Bull, their leader with the bulldog, were gracious opponents. They taught as they fought, they helped you up when you fell, and they congratulated you on what you did well. Losing to them did not feel like losing. They also didn’t try to hurt you like Packs Do and Chahar did.
The week came to an end, and we were left alone for two whole days. Two days of wallowing in self-pity and boredom. I made our pack clean up our room and go through at least some of the grooming exercises we’d been taught. We might not feel well, but we could at least try not to look as miserable as we all felt. We straightened our room, shaking out blankets and organizing our clothes on the small rack that had appeared in the corner of the room after the day we’d had Grey’s class. A similar rack was in the corner of each other room, Grey’s gift to each pack.
For lack of better things to do, I explored the other empty rooms. All three of them looked basically the same as our own. Would they be expanding into these rooms? Would other batches of boys be forced into this routine? I hoped not, and yet there was nothing we could do to prevent it. If there were more boys and dogs to be found, they would be brought here. They would be subjected to the same treatment and training as we were. That thought made me heartsick. Dog whined and looked up at me. Did he know what these rooms would become?
I stood in the empty room closest to ours, looking around at the bare walls. It was illuminated only by the lonely window on the wall, a portal not large enough for anyone to slip through, although L.D. would fit easily enough. The only thing was, there was no reason for the dog to escape without its master. A pet dog, like I’d seen folks have in the city, might run away on its own, but our dogs were not pets. I doubted that L.D. would have lasted long running out in the wilderness on his own anyway. A hawk or something would gobble him up before he made it halfway to the city.
Sighing, I decided to start working through some of the exercises we’d learned. We had time, and I didn’t want next week to go as this one had. When I’d worked up a sweat, I felt ready for a greater challenge.
“Killer!” I shouted. I was angry, mostly at myself. I was to blame for being weak.
His head popped through the arched doorway a moment later, his dog’s head popping through below his. “Go?”
He blinked at me once or twice and then nodded. He rolled his neck on his large shoulders to loosen up, and then walked over to lock arms with me. We began to wrestle, throwing each other around the room. He was stronger, but I was much faster. He won more matches than I did, but I knew I wasn’t going to get better without learning to fight someone stronger than me.
Drawn by the noise, Legs and Tiny gathered around to watch. A little more hesitantly, they took up wrestling as well, practicing what they’d learned against each other. They were perhaps a bit wiser than us; the floor was not so forgiving to be thrown upon, so they gathered extra blankets and used those to pad their falls.
Bull showed up at some point, I’m not exactly sure when. We’d been so into our matches that we probably didn’t see him watching us from the hall with his dog sitting across his feet.
“Do you want help?” He asked when we finally noticed him.
I looked to my fellows, and they nodded as one. So it was that Bull became something of a fourth trainer for us. Strong, patient, and able, he was a good teacher. Scar came by to scoff at us and mock our feeble efforts, but we said nothing. The next time we met, I wanted to give him a greater challenge. Bull might help get us there.
“Thank you.” I said to Bull when the five of us finally collapsed in exhaustion.
“You are welcome. These days pass slowly. There is too much time and not enough to do.” Bull said wistfully. “I am glad to have something to do.”
“I think they forget that we do not have families or any entertainment. The guards, they probably all have families to go home to. They have markets to visit. They have things to do.” Legs wore a forlorn expression that his skinny dog somehow managed to emulate.
I had an inkling, the beginnings of an idea. I thought back to how the boys in the alleys used to play, silly little games to pass the time. Was that something we could do? “Maybe we need something to do then. Training is good, but tomorrow, maybe we can do something fun.”
Bull smiled at the idea. “My pack and I would like that. Right now, I am ready for a long soak and some relaxation before our meal.”
“If we didn’t have a class today, will they still bring us a basket?” Tiny wondered aloud with more than a little alarm. No one wanted to go brush sand from our food for the second time in one day. No food would have been even worse.
“I forgot, this is your first time on a weekend. You’ll get a basket, but it won’t be anything special. It’s usually plain, simple food.”
“At least we don’t have to fight for it.” Legs remarked.
“There is that.” Bull nodded. “I will see you all later. He bowed stiffly from the waist adding a low growl, and then he vanished down the hall.
No one said anything, but we all realized that he’d just afforded us the same respect that he would have for the Emperor or his other instructors. Was that something he did to everyone, or did he truly feel that he owed as much fealty among our own kind as he did to some Emperor that he’d likely never met? It was both a worrisome and exciting thought.
We quietly gathered up ourselves and went to bathe before the evening meal came. All the while, I was quietly trying to come up with a way to entertain my pack tomorrow. If I could do that, could we bridge the gap between packs? What would that even mean? What would it be like if we all worked together?
Ideas started to swirl in my head. I had to try something.
Blue’s class had been followed with a quiet lesson, during which he’d broken down some things he’d noticed about our time in the maze. He called it a debriefing, a time to relate to what we’d experienced and learn from it. The whole time he spoke, he and other classmates kept casting glances my way, none more than Drum. I purposely ignored them, staring straight forward, dedicated to being an attentive student. The truth was, I heard only about half of what he said, and I understood about a fourth of it.
Blue outlined some tactical advice to be attempted on future assignments. It seemed as if we’d be tested differently each time we saw him. I wondered how many more of my tests would be tricks like this one, meant to make me feel as if I were to be torn once more from Nokomi’s side. I felt Kalb’s influence there. A pang of separation hit me once more, and Dog licked my hand, setting his head on my lap. I focused on him, rather than what I felt. An unknown amount of time later, we were dismissed.
That night, a basket was delivered once more, this time with a blue cloth wrapping up the food. Our treat at the bottom this time was slivers of candied ginger. The sugar on the outside of the ginger offset some of the cool burning of the ginger. The dogs wanted nothing to do with it, but the four of us boys all enjoyed it, if only because it was something strange and new.
The interesting thing was that the candied ginger had been wrapped in the handkerchief I’d fought to retrieve earlier. It still smelled of the perfume, although that scent was now mingled with the odors of food from the basket. Beneath the smells of grilled vegetables and roasted lamb coated in a potent garlic and herb oil, I could smell the perfume.
I tucked the handkerchief under my blankets, and none of the pack questioned the act. They all looked at me with understanding, although they understood nothing. They just knew something had set me off, and I’d turned into an animal… or Dog and I had done so together. No one spoke of it, but whatever had happened had caused them to look at me differently, with more respect, like the sort of respect you showed a dangerous animal when you observed it from a close proximity.
We slept instead of speaking of it.
The next morning, it became clear that we’d fallen into the Kennel’s routine quite easily, perhaps because there was no other choice. The routine was: wake, fight for the early meal, stretch our legs in the yard, go to class, clean up, eat dinner, and then sleep. The only things that changed were the specific classes we went to, the pairings of packs at certain classes, and the types of food we received.
After our morning run in the yard, where Dog and I stayed apart once more, ignoring the looks and whispers from some of the other packs, we were summoned inside once more. This time, Grey held up Panj’s symbol. Red and Blue took the other packs. We would go to Grey alone. That was something of a relief, a reprieve from being forced into accompanying Chahar for a third day in a row.
Grey led us down the long hallway of the west wing, up past the two large rooms where Red and Blue were instructing their classes in martial matters. Grey had a set of small rooms at the north end of the wing, each of which he took us through.
Prior to opening the first door, Grey smiled happily at the four of us. “This, is where you will learn to look after yourselves. You are all very shabby-looking, fresh off the streets, and that is not a fitting look for servants of the Emperor. In fact, I won’t even have you bow to his portrait until you are all cleaned up.”
The first room Grey took us into was a room filled with steaming baths. There were attendants wearing only simple cloths wrapped around their midsections, one for each of us. Each attendant scrubbed both boy and dog they were assigned to, working us over with all the delicateness a butcher might show a piece of meat. Clearly we were filthy beasts that needed to be scrubbed clean, even if that took several layers of skin with it. They wielded brushes, cloths, and scented oils like soldiers might wield weapons.
Their jobs done, the attendants drained the muddy bathtubs, while we were wrapped in soft towels and set in front of looking glasses. There, we were taught to look after every aspect of our appearances, from teeth, to skin, to hair.
We were moved to a new room next, each of us smelling fresh and looking cleaner than any of us had likely been since the days we’d come into the world. Again, prior to admittance to this room, Grey had a speech prepared for us.
“Your dogs are also servants of the Emperor, and they must also be cared for as such. They should always be presentable and proper.”
The second room had more attendants, but these ones seemed to be knowledgeable in the care of animals. They took each of us aside in pairs and showed us proper hygiene for dogs. They worried and frowned at Dog’s scratches and scars, the dirty interiors of his ears, and the state of his gum lines. I learned a dozen new things that I’d never had to care about before, things I couldn’t have considered while living in a den in the alleyways.
Dog suffered most of this indignities with fair grace, mostly because I was calm beside him. Had I been agitated, I doubt he would have let the man poke, prod, and examine him. He marveled over Dog, as he’d not seen another of his kind in the close company of a person before. We were something of an oddity even to animal doctors.
Tiny’s little beast gave his attendant the most trouble, drawing blood when the man tried to check his teeth. Apparently, L.D. mistook the man’s fingers for sausages. It was not a mistake he’d make twice.
Eventually, all of our beasts were combed and groomed. Toenails had been filed and clipped, ears were cleaned, scrapes and scratches were treated with balm, and we were all declared fit to enter the third room.
“Now you all look like proper servants of the Emperor. These final rooms,” he indicated three more rooms down his wing, “are where we learn to act like proper young men and agents of the Emperor.”
“In one of these rooms, you will learn how to dress. There are dozens of courtly functions each year, and each one has a very specific code of dress. In the next room, you will learn how to eat like a man, not a beast. It is not enough to look and smell the part. You must also be able to eat and behave like a man.” Grey smiled with a polite wince, as if we were all abominable and ill-mannered creatures. We probably were.
“Finally, you will learn etiquette and dance. To truly be a man of the court, you must be able to speak, dance, and move like a courtier. If you stalk about as a brute, it will be all too clear that you are a soldier. To serve the Emperor, you must be able to blend in with the gentlest of folk. You must be a wolf in a man’s guise, ever careful to keep to your disguise.”
The four of us looked at each other. This was a lot to take in all at once.
“I appreciate that you are overwhelmed. You’ve been raised like wild animals, and you’ve learned to act like beasts for your whole lives. Few understood your connections to your dogs, and fewer still knew how to train you to be the best of both worlds. Red and Blue might teach you to be the best warriors possible, but I will teach you all to be the best men possible.”
“Shall we begin?” He asked eagerly. He was clearly excited by the prospects of molding a new group of young men into proper human-like servants of the Emperor.
It wasn’t exactly an excited bunch of boys answering, but we all said yes. In the end, getting a fresh set of clean clothes was not such a bad thing. But who knew how difficult it could be to put on clothes, to keep them clean, and to not slop food all over oneself while eating?
I had a feeling that Grey’s lessons, while not physically challenging, would be very challenging to us mentally. Patience and manners were not things that came easily to any of us.
Our next breakfast was much the same as the day before, a fight with the others for our meal. This time, we knew what to expect, and we came out a little bit better off than we had our first time around. Dog and I also helped gather food, mostly by running interference for Tiny and his little partner. Killer, as the day before, guarded our food.
Legs struggled after his initial plunder, because speed only works for the first strike. After that, he lacked the initiative and aggressive nature it would have taken to push through to get more. He apologized, but it wasn’t necessary, as he still managed to get the nicest piece of meat in our haul. Additionally, Tiny had been far more effective, mostly because Drum and Bear were stalking Dog and I, leaving some of Chahar’s potential haul vulnerable.
We ate in silence, not relishing the food, but certainly not wasting it. After what we’d eaten the night before, we certainly weren’t going to attack sandy piles of food with a whole lot of gusto. No, I ate somewhat more carefully, dusting off the food and eating around smashed spots. Looking around, I saw the others were doing the same. I suppose we’d become something of food snobs after a single basket of nice food.
“This is a strange place.” I whispered conspiratorially to my pack. They all looked up to listen, waiting for me to go on. “One moment, they encourage us to act like animals. The next, we’re treated like people.”
“Which one are we supposed to be?” Tiny wondered aloud, touching on something we all felt.
“Like both.” Killer suggested. “The Emperor will have need for men who can be both.” Red had said as much, and Killer’s words made it seem all that much truer.
We were let out through the east gate to wander the yards and stretch our legs. I mulled over what we’d experienced and couldn’t find any flaw to his thinking. It was a strange path we walked, straddling the line between beast and man, the best of both words wrapped in a dangerous package.
Dog and I ran a bit, alternating it with walking. We kept to ourselves, stretching our legs and letting our food digest. I wanted my food to be settled before our next class. It would be either Blue or Grey today, and Blue seemed more likely, as we would have it more often than Grey.
Dog and I had always run a lot in the alleys. Even though we’d only been here for two days, we both missed it. You did that sort of a thing, dodging through narrow passages and avoiding detection or capture. Despite surviving by taking things from other people, I’d never thought of myself as a thief. We’d just been hungry. Dog and I had needed something that other people had plenty of. Even the best thieves couldn’t always get away clean. When we grabbed something from a market stall or an open window, we were seen sometimes, and we’d have to run away. Hearts hammering in our chests, it was almost like a game, one where getting caught might result in losing a hand or getting thrown into jail. Running in the yard gave us a little of that sense of freedom, even if it was quite limited, and if it lacked the thrill of the escape.
Dog and I had lived for years by ourselves. We’d always been able to come and go as we pleased. There had been no place we couldn’t go if we put our minds to it. Now, we came and went as they told us, on a schedule set by men we didn’t know.
When we were summoned back inside by the bells, we lined up once more in front of our instructors. This time, we were called forward to stand beside Blue, who held up the symbol for our pack. Once more, we were paired up with Chahar. That didn’t bode well. Surely they’d want revenge for yesterday. Although, truth be told, other than the initial bout between Drum and I, it had mostly gone their way. We’d all tried to give as well as we’d been given, but I was sure we had a larger share of bruises and scrapes than they did. Chahar had more training than, and it showed. We certainly had a lot of catching up to do.
Packs Do and Yek were lined up with Red today, and Pack Se was lined up with Grey. The members of Pack Se seemed pleased by this. Perhaps we’d have something to look forward to with Grey’s lessons? I couldn’t recall how Pack Yek had looked after our lessons yesterday, having been too exhausted to care, so I didn’t remember if they’d returned to their room as exhausted as we had been. That would have to wait and see. Perhaps tomorrow, we’d learn.
Blue led us into the same hallway as yesterday, only we were the next large room over. I expected to find another room with weapons on one side and fighting circles on the floor, but was confronted with an entirely different room. It was not at all what I expected, but it seemed as if it might just be a good thing.
We were staring at a maze of passages, all made from movable walls too tall to see over. Because many of them had been closed off overhead as well, the passages between them were often dark, and we could not see past the first bend down any of the three routes offered.
“As servants of your Emperor, you will be asked to perform many tasks. Some will be difficult. Some will be routine. Today’s task is to search for a handkerchief.”
“A handkerchief?” Drum scoffed.
Blue’s sharp gaze swiveled his way, and he quickly looked at his feet. “It is not your place to question what is asked of you. If the Emperor gives you a seemingly strange order, it is still to be followed, as you may not understand the importance of what is being asked of you. After all, you are his dogs, and he is your master.”
“What does the handkerchief look like?” Tiny, standing beside me, asked.
Blue’s face shifted into a mysterious smile. “That, is a good question.” Even if it had been a good question, it was a question he refused to answer.
He chose three of us seemingly at random, making each student first bark and bow to the portrait of the Emperor that hung over the doorway. Only, this portrait also included other faces. The Emperor was at the front and center of the portrait, dominating the frame. A dark-haired and beautiful woman, likely his mate, stood behind and to the left of him, and two younger girls filled the portrait’s right side. One of those girls I recognized immediately as Nokomi, while the other was similar and yet different, likely an older sister.
“As the Emperor wills.” Blue announced, sending Legs and two members of Pack Chahar into the maze, one at each entry point. Legs cast us a forlorn look, and then vanished into the wooden passageways as he’d been directed.
The rest of us waited, standing there and listening to the noises of dogs and boys as they progressed through the maze. This room was somewhat wider than the one we’d trained in the previous day, although the ceiling was of the same height and it appeared to be about the same depth.
Once or twice, we heard baying, as one of the hounds from Pack Chahar seemed to have scented something. Occasionally, we’d hear scratching or some sort of scuffling about. Then we heard a yelp, and some grunts of pain and struggle.
“What’s in there?” I asked our instructor.
He smiled and shrugged. “It will be different for each group. Life is an ever-changing series of challenges.”
We waited, watching and listening. After an unknown amount of time, a time that seemed close to an eternity, a red flag on a long pole waved from the back end of the room. This seemed like the signal for the next batch of us to enter the maze, but Blue held us back with outstretched hands. Anxious to see who was next, we waited for him to make his choices.
Instead, we heard clanking, grinding, and shifting inside the maze. Once or twice we saw flashes of auburn. Were there guards inside the maze? What purpose did they have? Would we have to fight them? Were they moving the obstacles? I’d have to wait to see. I could do nothing else.
A green flag waved from the back of the room, and Blue finally chose three more of us, again seemingly at random. Tiny was chosen, along with a long-haired dog from Chahar and a small, brown mongrel from Chahar.
This round went much like the last, except we heard snarling and L.D.’s excited yips at one point. After several minutes, the red flag waved again. Once more, the maze shifted around. This time, a few of the closer walls moved. I could see the tops of the obstacles being readjusted.
Killer and I were all that was left of Panj. From Chahar, there were also two members left: Drum and another boy with a shaved head and a wrinkly, short-haired dog that seemed little more than a pup. Both the wrinkly dog and the boy had a kindly look about them.
When the green flag flew, I fully expected Killer to be sent in with the boy, and then Drum and I would get paired up once again. Instead, Blue indicated that I was to be sent in alone.
I sent a questioning look at Blue, but his expression was unreadable. He said nothing, except, “You’d better go quickly.”
Killer gave me a reassuring nod, and I did not wait any longer. I had three choices of paths, so I took the one that looked, at least from the start, to be the least straight-forward route. Sometimes, I’d learned, going the hardest-looking route was actually the easiest. I hoped it was true this time, too.
Dog and I sprang forward, darting into the course. We opened our noses as we ran, taking in the scents and odors. We smelled wood and the chemicals that had been used to treat the panels that boxed us in. The scents of the dogs and boys that had passed this way before also filled our nostrils. Still, there was a hint of something very faint in the air, something familiar.
The passage ahead narrowed, closed off from the ceiling and the floor. Only a small crawlspace existed. Dog and I negotiated that easily enough, having been squeezing through small spaces for years. A large animal like Drum’s dog wouldn’t fit through.
The passage forked. We went straight instead of heading in the direction I knew the flags were. The far end of the room was where the flags were being waved, but I didn’t want to get out of the maze. No, I needed to find something, so Dog and I let our noses lead the way.
Up ahead I heard the whispers of feet on packed clay. Dog looked at me and I looked back. We both smelled a trap. Grinning at each other, we tiptoed forward warily, only to find the walls starting to collapse around us. Dropping low, we crawled as the obstacles crumbled above us, leaving us barely enough room to move beneath them.
Clear of the collapsing walls, we continued after the scent, which grew stronger as we moved deeper into the maze. Dog’s led the way, so it was his paw that caught on a string that ran across the passage floor; flares burst afire around us, and the flashing brightness made our pupils contract. I shielded my eyes and untangled Dog’s paw, pushing forward once more.
From the entry, I heard movement. A deep growl filled the room, and a whoop of glee I knew came from Drum. I’d known him all of two days, and I recognized his voice easily. What was this? In other places, I also heard movement.
Now, Blue’s words made sense. Dog and I were being chased. Not only did we have to find the handkerchief, but we also had to do so before we were caught by the last three participants. Blue’s words echoed in my ears: “Life is an ever-changing series of challenges.”
Well, Dog and I weren’t going to let those challenges get the better of us. We pushed forward into a series of darker passages, covered overhead with musty-smelling, heavy fabric to cut the light down to almost nothing, all the while messing with our senses of smell. Dog and I were no strangers to mildew and rot. Like a sweet undertone, I could still sense the scent we’d been hunting.
The bright flares from before made it hard to see. Our eyes had not adjusted back to the darkness, but our ears were still sharp, and we heard someone rapidly approaching, although the echoes made it hard to tell from where they were coming. Unexpectedly, the young boy and his wrinkly dog burst out from an unseen side passage and came upon us. Much like Red’s class from the day before, we were forced into grappling combat. I was larger than him, and probably stronger, but he’d gotten the jump on me. He had me pinned against the wall, while his dog tried to subdue my Dog.
As we fought, breathing heavily and shoving each other back and forth into the walls, I heard Drum and Bear cursing back the way we’d come from. Had he gotten stuck in the narrow passage? Killer would be closing in, too, and that was one fight I dared not participate in. I knew I’d lose.
I stuck my leg out behind the boy’s foot and gave him a heavy shove. He stumbled backward into the wall and ended up in a pile on top of his own dog. The boy groaned as his head bounced off the wall. Dog snarled in their faces and we bolted further down the passage. Time was running out.
Abandoning caution, we threw ourselves headlong down the passages, darting right, going straight at a fork, and vaulting over a series of uneven crates that shifted as we climbed over them. Up ahead, I saw auburn. Dog yipped excitedly. The smell was stronger than ever. It was floral, delicate, and intensely familiar.
Three guards stood around someone on the floor, someone kneeling. My heart thundered wildly, my eyes opening to their fullest. The smell, the dark hair, and the white dress. Could it be?
The guards rounded on us. They stood in a four-way intersection, facing outward in a triangle formation, surrounding the girl that was kneeling between them. Dog’s round ears perked as the girl turned our way. We saw a flutter of a colored handkerchief in her hand, but we could not see her face.
“Nokomi!” I shouted, darting in, Dog beside me.
Just days ago, we’d lived through this. We’d been separated from Nokomi by guards. Kalb had separated us, and now we’d get her back. This time, we’d not be kept apart. The guards wore padded armor and warded us off with blunted spears and wooden swords, but they might as well have been fully armored and using metal weapons for all we cared.
We fell upon the guards with a fury I’d never felt before. We’d always fought to survive before, never to protect, never to rescue a friend. It was an alien feeling, and yet a good one.
Dog was not much heavier than myself, but he was a jumper. He threw himself at the right guard’s face. Instinct dictated that the man would cover up to protect his face and throat. That gave me an opening. The middle guard, who’d thought I was going to attack him, found himself without a target. Instead, I went after the right guard as well, knocking his legs out from underneath him.
Snarling, I stomped heavily on the man’s chest and latched myself on the next man’s legs, biting and snarling as Dog backed me up. I felt a blow on my shoulders, but shook it off, biting harder as the guardsman screamed and struck at my head and tried to shake me off.
With a shove, I threw the man into the walls. The temporary structure collapsed, leaving him in a pile, covered by wooden planks. A scream filled my ears.
Dog and I threw ourselves at the last guard. He deflected my attack with his staff, shouldering me into a wall. When he brought his staff back around too slowly, Dog latched himself on the man’s arm and took him to the ground. I recovered quickly, shaking off my daze, and pounced on the man, pummeling his face.
More screams, from Nokomi. We turned to her, expecting to find one or more of the guards recovered enough to threaten her once more, something we would not allow. We’d kill them all if need be. Bloodthirst - it was a new feeling for me.
Instead, we found a stranger’s face staring at us with a look of terror upon it. Dark-haired and dressed in white this girl might be, but it was not Nokomi. It was even the same scent upon her handkerchief. Dog trotted over and sniffed at her, but he knew the truth. His head swiveled my way and his ears drooped in a very human look of disappointment.
Drum and Bear stood at the end of one passage, some ten paces away. The look he gave us frightened me. Even Bear, massive though he was, didn’t want anything to do with us right now. I could smell fear on them both.
The guards started to recover, but they were all bleeding and bruised in one way or another, and they made no move to stop us from taking the handkerchief from the girl. She shied away from us, flinching back as we took it. She, too, feared that we might hurt her, as if we would turn upon her and devour her like wild beasts.
We exited the maze then, walking right past Killer and his dog. He and his dog looked at us differently, too, but it was not fear we saw and smelled on them. It was satisfaction. It was loyalty. It was servitude. Had our portrait been upon that wall above the entry, I had no doubt he would have barked and bowed to us at that moment.
The rest of packs Panj and Chahar waited for us outside the maze. A pair of guards in auburn looked at us with pale faces as we exited. I didn’t need a looking glass to know that we had blood on our faces.
They waved the last red flag of the day.
Strangely, the last meal of the day was delivered in baskets by the guards. The four of us sprang up when we heard the gates open, fully expecting to have to battle our way through another meal. This time, though, there was no mad rush into the hallways. In fact, only our pack went into the halls, only to find a dozen guards carrying baskets our way.
A basket was walked into our room and set on the floor for the four of us. The guard said nothing as he left the basket behind. Our basket bore a symbol I now recognized as the symbol of our pack, having seen it on the signs that Red had held up prior to our lessons. We watched as the guard retreated and the other packs received their baskets. Each basket seemed to be sized and portioned appropriately for the size of the pack it was meant for.
As suddenly as they had arrived, the guards departed, retreating through the gates and bolting them behind them. I expected we’d not be getting out again this evening. Already, the light from outside had begun to fade. Soon, we’d be left in the dark, not that it much mattered to me. I’d always had good night sight, and it seemed to only get stronger the older I got.
The four of us gathered around the basket. It was almost too nice for a place like this. The woven basket had a red cloth inside, and the smells that came from within were nothing short of heavenly. We may have been fed before our midday lessons, but we’d more than used up all the energy that food had given us. Red’s class had left us all drained, tired, and sore.
Legs fell to his knees beside the basket, with his dog’s chin resting on his shoulder. They both eyed it like the people of the city looked at the small idols they prayed to in their homes, as if the basket itself were something divine. His hands shook as he beheld the basket. Tiny was less reserved, following L.D.’s example, he began sniffing at it. Killer watched with an even expression, though his stomach growled audibly. I nodded to him and took my place on the floor beside the basket.
“Let’s open this.” Tiny said encouragingly, but they were clearly waiting for me to open it, being pack leader.
I didn’t hesitate. Dog was at my side, and his saliva rubbed on my elbow as I lifted the flaps of red fabric aside to see what was in the basket. It contained a wealth of delicacies: roasted meats, savory bread, smoked cheeses, and apricot preserves. As a treat, a small bundle of roasted and glazed nuts were tucked inside a small dish. There was enough for everyone. We would not have to fight for this meal or eat food covered in sand.
Legs began crying softly as we handed out the luxurious meal we’d been given. Killer put a steadying hand on Legs’ shoulder and gave him a nod. “Eat.” That was all he said, but it had its intended effect. The eight of us, four humans and four dogs, dug in, eating every last morsel. A carafe of cool water, flavored with citrus and cucumber, washed it down.
We saved the candied nuts for last. I held out the dish, and we each took one to start. Tiny regarded it with suspicion, but we all popped them into our mouths at the same moment. Our eyes went wide with surprise. The salty-sweet crunch with subtle hints of cardamom and honey were enough to make one swoon. We began to laugh and grabbed greedily at the remaining nuts, still careful to not take more than our share. The dogs tried them, but only Dog really seemed to like them. I gave him my last one.
The entire experience of the meal felt surreal. We’d been caged, forced to fight each other, and made roommates of necessity with strangers. The whole last day had all felt so cruel that this simple act of kindness, a pleasant meal, overwhelmed us all. It restored the spirits, and I found myself hating the place a little less. Was this how it would be? Would they work us hard, push us, treat us like beasts, and then feed us well?
A final surprise waited for us at the bottom of the basket: a jar of thick paste, something minty-smelling. I tasted it first, frowning at its bitterness and greasy, powerful taste. It did not seem like food. I spat it out, wishing I had more of the candied nuts to eat to rid my mouth of this new taste. Legs shook his head as he sniffed it, and Tiny shrugged.
Killer took the jar and smelled it. “Liniment, for pain and wounds.” He answered, dipping his fingers into it. He immediately rubbed it into his forearm, where he had a pretty nasty scrape that had already scabbed, but the bruises around it were just beginning to really darken.
We all followed his example, though I did not much care for the greasy feel of it on my skin. Dog didn’t much care for the smell, either. He sneezed and rubbed at his muzzle where a small bit of it had transferred to his nose.
After, since the wash areas were not busy, we made our way down to wash some of the grime from our faces and bodies. The other packs seemed content to laze about after a day of exertions and a filling meal, so we were not bothered as we went about our business. We cleared out quickly, heading back to sleep. With more hard lessons waiting for us tomorrow, sufficient rest would be important.
I set my damp blankets up along the back wall. The others followed my example, settling in toward the back of the room. Among the four of us, Killer was the one to sleep closest to the doorway. He did this on his own, perhaps deciding he was best suited to being the first line of defense against the other packs.
I tried to remain awake, or to sleep in shifts, but the events of the day had left me tired and sore. Dog and I slipped off into sleep almost immediately. Caution failed in the face of exhaustion.
Our instructors waited beside the west gate, the only gate I’d yet to see open. Red, Blue, and Grey each held up signs with characters written on them. I couldn’t read them, so I paid careful attention to where the other packs went, trotting alongside the whole group.
Pack Yek lined up with Grey. He held only one sign. I memorized the character. Packs Do and Se lined up with Blue, who held up two signs. I didn’t know which was which, but I memorized the two. Later, I’d try to figure out how to distinguish between them. Red also held up two signs, one of them was apparently ours, because Legs began lining up in front of it. Chahar was apparently with us as well.
I glanced over at their group, meeting eyes once more with their leader and his giant dog. The smaller boy nodded to me, grinning wickedly. I felt anxious, but not scared. If we were going to have this thing out, at least Red would be there. He wouldn’t let things go too far, would he?
The west gate opened, admitting us. We watched Yek enter first with their instructor, followed by Blue and his two classes, and finally Red, who we followed. Chahar led the way, refusing to give way to our smaller pack. I was fine watching them enter. It gave us more time to observe as we went down the hallway.
Unlike the west gate, which led straight through the thick wall and out into the yard, this hall was longer. It rather quickly ran into a long hallway that ran north-south through the building. Several doors were on the far side of the hallway, one of which being where Blue led his two packs. From the sound of the echoes within that room, it seemed rather large. Grey took his class all the way down the hallway in the direction of the north wing, although they stayed within the rooms of this western wing of the complex.
That left our two packs and Red. We took the large room beside the one that Blue had entered with his packs. Red stood beside the double doors, which he’d opened, and held out a hand to indicate that we were to enter. I was unprepared for what the room held.
Some thirty paces on a side, the far wall had several high windows that admitted light that supplemented the illumination from the skylights above us. The large room was lined with racks of weapons on the right side, as one faced inward from the entrance. An assortment of blunt staves, poles, wooden swords, and chains hung in the nearest part of that wall, while locked cases of swords, knives, spears, and other edged weapons were just beyond them. A third section, toward the far wall, featured various ranged weapons: slings, small crossbows, and bows with a variety of arrows.
Piles of other equipment had been carefully stacked on the opposite wall, to my left. Some of the items had obvious purposes, things like bars, posts, wooden platforms, ropes, scaffolding, and weights. Other things were less obvious in their purpose, and there were closed crates of gear as well. I both wondered and worried about what sorts of things they might contain.
The floor of the room was laid out with five combat circles, all painted white. The central circle was largest, about five long paces across, with the other four arranged around it like corners of a box. The central circle was situated atop a ring of raised earth in the exact middle of the room. It looked to be made of packed reddish clay, built nearly waist high on me. The white ring that had been painted on top of the platform had been marred by footprints, but was still mostly intact.
The other four rings were similar, but not quite as large, and they were not nearly so high, perhaps ankle high at most. Between the five rings, there were places where ropes, rings, and bars were hung from the ceiling. Most of those had been drawn up out of the way for the moment.
Red indicated with two pointed fingers, one from each hand, that we should gather in our packs in front of him. When we gathered in the spots as he’d asked, he began his instruction, starting with a well-rehearsed speech, one he would begin every class with.
“No one wanted you. No one cared for you. You were without purpose, wild beasts. Now, you will live like true dogs, serving the only man who wants your loyalty, the only one who will offer you a place in this life: Emperor.”
He pointed to a painting of the Emperor on the wall above the doors. “Your master!”
Pack Chahar gave a bark and a stiff bow. We did the same after looking at one another. We might not have done it as loudly or with as much practice as them, but we followed their example anyway.
Satisfied with our introduction to his class, Red began pacing back and forth in front of our group. “As your fighting instructor, it is my privilege to instruct you in the ways of combat. You will learn to be deadly with any weapon you are handed, or without one. You were born with natural weapons beyond those of most normal humans. Your hands are your claws, your teeth are your fangs, and your dogs are an extension of your bodies, extra weapons in your arsenal. You must be as deadly as a dozen men, no matter your size. To be any less is to be worthless in our Emperor’s service.”
“Drum. Here. Now.” Red snapped his fingers and asked Chahar’s leader to join him. The boy was quick to join him at his side. “Weapon of choice?” He asked.
“Spear.” Drum answered immediately. He didn’t even need to think about it.
“Why?” Red demanded.
It gives me superior reach. It is deadly from a distance and up close. I can throw it or hold it. Either way, I can kill.”
“You.” Red pointed at me. “Here. Now.”
I joined him on his left side, where Drum stood on his right.
“Same question. Weapon of choice?”
I did not have an immediate answer for him. Instead, I looked to the wall appraisingly before settling on my answer. “My hands.”
Red’s mouth twisted into a smile. “Why?”
“If I drop a knife, I cannot use it. If a club is taken from me, I have nothing. You cannot take my hands from me. I can use them to make anything into a weapon. Or, I can choke, punch, and claw you with them.”
“An interesting answer, boy. Now gather around, boys and dogs. Let us see then, how their answers serve them.”
Red leaped over to the wall to grab a blunted spear. Then, he hurried back to the center of the room, where he waved Drum and me up onto the ring. Before I knew it, I was upon the packed clay, standing directly across from the smaller boy, but he held a spear, and I had nothing but my own two hands. The rest of our two packs had gathered around the base of the circle, looking up at us.
Red cleared his throat and turned slowly, pointing a finger from his left hand as he turned and spoke, “Guard yourselves well, and remember that fights are never even. Your opponents could always be faster, smarter, stronger, bigger, or better equipped and trained than you. It is up to you to exploit their weaknesses and make them into your advantages.”
Red stepped down from the ring and Drum charged immediately. Apparently, there would be no signal to begin, but I had not expected one. Dog barked a warning, but I’d known the attack was coming.
Drum’s two-handed hold on his spear shortened his possible reach, which was good for me, because there was not a lot of space within the circle where I could hide from him. I dodged the initial stab, but he came back with three more, which had me backpedaling and side-stepping along the edge of the circle. My bare feet whispered across the clay, kicking up dust and the talc that white line had been painted with. Drum was quick, I had to give him that. I doubted he’d tire before he hit me, so I knew I had to do something.
The alleys had taught me to survive. Dog and I had always known when to hide, when to run, and when to attack. This was one of those times. I let Drum close on me, waving his spear threateningly. He thought he had me cornered, but that’s just what I wanted him to believe.
He came at me, and I leaned backward, as if I was going to overbalance and fall from the platform. As expected, he sent his spear right at my guts. I snaked my body to the side and grabbed the haft of the spear, tugging it with all of my might. This was like a tug-of-war game I’d played before with Dog, standing on top of a crate in the alleys, but I’d adapted it to this new situation.
My pull against his weight kept me atop the platform while he kept moving forward with his momentum. Drum sailed past me, landing on the ground off of the platform, amidst a crowd that scattered as he fell. His spear clattered uselessly on the floor. He gathered himself up onto his knees slowly, shocked by what had just happened.
His large dog found him and nudged him encouragingly until he stood. I waited silently in the center of the platform, preparing for what would come next. With murder in his eyes, Drum stepped back over to the edge of the platform and pulled himself up, bringing his spear with him. He expected me to attack him as he got back up, but I didn’t strike when he was most vulnerable. It unnerved him to see me waiting to attack.
Changing tactics, he began to swing the spear overhead with one hand, greatly extending his reach. I waited until he got close and feinted as if I’d go low, trying to get under his spear, but that was what he wanted me to do. I could see his strategy in the way he planned to shift his hands to a two-handed grasp once more and strike when I was within his range. When he drew back to fend off my attack, I ran to the side instead, sliding off of the platform.
Dumbfounded by what he took as surrender, Drum turned to Red and held his hands up. “He ran away!”
Only I hadn’t. I’d gotten him right where I wanted. I slid back through the watching crowd, and without getting back up onto the platform entirely, I was able to slide up onto my belly and grab his ankles. One yank at his feet dropped him right onto his face. A moment later I stood above him with my foot pressing into his hands, forcing him to let go of his spear.
“BEAR!” He screamed, unwilling to give up.
Drum’s massive dog bounded up on top of the platform. The mass of fur and muscle barreled right at me, trying to save his master. I spun to the side, kicking the spear with me as I went.
Dog leaped up and found his place beside me. The two of us, him with his teeth and me with my enemy’s spear, faced down the aptly named Bear as it advanced on us.
“Enough.” Red barked. He held his hands up to signal the end of the combat. Bear backed down immediately, though Drum clearly wanted to continue.
“I am impressed in what I saw. What is your name, new boy?”
“Go.” I answered.
“And your animal?”
“Go and Dog of Pack Panj.” Red repeated, nodding. He was not the sort that would forget it.
Red placed himself between the two of us and our dogs. “Bow to your opponents, Drum and Bear of Pack Chahar. Bow to your opponents, Go and Dog of Pack Panj.”
I bowed to Drum and his dog, though I liked it not. Still, if this was part of what was expected, I’d have to do it. I’d gotten lucky using tricks this time. Next time, Drum would be ready for me. I’d just made him hate me all the more. The look in his eyes promised retribution.
Red ignored the nasty look my opponent favored me with. “Competitors you may be now, but you all serve the same master, and he is your true pack leader, your alpha.” He let that sink in for a moment.
“Now, we’re going to pair off. We will rotate partners every five minutes. Then we will do exercises. You cannot be the most dangerous warriors if you have not mastered your own bodies. We will make you fast, strong, tireless, and flexible. Your dogs will train beside you. Only when dog and man are both in peak condition can you be your most deadly.”
“For those of you that are new here, you will see me three days out of eight. Blue will have you for two. Grey will have you for one. The other two days are your own to rest, to clean yourselves, and to bond with your pack.”
What followed was an exhausting set of exercises, including: grappling, wrestling, weights, running, balance, and weapons training. At least, for the rest of the class, I did not have to face Drum again.
Class ended with a bow to the portrait of the Emperor. Then we were dismissed and sent back to the north wing – the dog house. There, we waited for dinner, and prepared to sleep in shifts, ready for reprisals from Drum and Pack Chahar.
Killer and Legs managed to find a pair of less filthy blankets that we could huddle into that night, while Tiny and I explored the washroom. It was strange to have such a large area dedicated to water, let alone bathing, when I’d never seen anything larger than a fountain in the public square or an ankle-deep river of water temporarily running down an alley after a particularly heavy rain.
The room was expansive, and the room was almost entirely filled with a pool that was staggering in size. It had to be large enough for fifty to a hundred people, and it was constantly fed by running water. Water cascading down into the pool through a pipe on one side of the tiled room, and it drained on the other side through a grate at the bottom of the pool.
The entire pool, other than just beneath where the water entered, was surrounded by enough walkway for three people to walk beside each other. Several stations on the near side had been set up along the wall for us to relieve ourselves or rinse off. Along the far wall there were a handful of spigots, with a pile of flat rocks and cakes of yellow soap. I knew them to be washing areas for clothes.
I’d scrubbed my clothes once or twice in similar setups, not that I’d ever been particularly big on doing laundry. A clean smell and appearance could do more to attract the wrong kind of attention where I’d grown up than a filthy look did. Still, it was a good place to wash the mingled piss of boys and dogs from our blankets.
Tiny and I set to washing the blankets. He was good at it, once shown how. He rinsed and squeezed, while I scrubbed and soaped it up with the heavy soap we’d been provided with. Then I’d hand it back to him for more rinsing and squeezing. We worked together on wringing it out after each blanket was as clean as we could get it.
Meanwhile, Tiny and Dog stood watch and tested the water. Dog had never gone swimming before, but Tiny was not opposed to testing out the shallower edges of the pool, nothing below the first step. Tiny eyed me. He’d watched me for some time as I finished up the last of our blankets. We’d actually have at least two blankets per person once these were dry – or one per person and one per dog.
“So you’re going to be our pack leader?” It was more of a question than an argument from Tiny.
“I didn’t want it, but someone had to stand up. Legs wasn’t just as likely to take off as he was to stand and fight, and Killer wasn’t going to take charge. I’m glad Killer is on our side. I could be wrong, but he looks like the type that wants to be pointed at an enemy and told to attack. He doesn’t want to choose who he has to fight.”
“And me?” Tiny asked, not arguing with either of my previous assessments.
I thought this one over. It was easy to comment on Legs and Killer, since they weren’t listening, but Tiny was asking me in person what I thought of him. If I said the wrong thing, I could lose him forever, and this was not a large pack. We had the smallest pack, tied with Pack Do, but they were older and more experienced, so we might as well have been the smallest. We needed all four of us if we were going to survive.
I decided to be honest with what I said, but tried not to be cruel. “You’re all fight, Tiny. I’m not sure how smart you are yet.”
Tiny barked a laugh, and, hearing it echo in the tiled room, laughed even louder. “You’re probably right. I get it from L.D. He’s always ready to attack without thinking.”
I grinned. “I saw...”
“Thanks for pulling us both back before. We get in the moment and don’t know how to back down, not matter the odds.”
“Don’t worry. There will be time enough for fighting later.” I just hoped it wasn’t too soon. Chahar Pack was itching for a fight, and I doubted we’d get more than a few days before it came. I wouldn’t have been totally surprised if it came later in the day or perhaps at night. Sometimes, if you have to make a point, it’s better to do it quickly.
Almost on cue, a bell rang from the other side of the building, possibly from one of the towers back across the sandy square of the gallery where we’d had our orientation. From down the hall, we heard as boys and dogs erupted at once from their rooms, not even minding who they ran next to or what pack each of them belonged to.
“Move!” I shouted, gathering up the soaking blankets and running for the door. Dog led the way for us.
Back at our room, Killer and Legs stood in the doorway, looking confused.
“What is it?” Legs asked worriedly. His dog was crouched beside him, looking worriedly out at the crowd in the hall.
I sniffed the air. Even without Dog’s extra senses, I knew what this was. “Food.”
I tossed the sodden blankets in the corner and started down the hall with my pack in tow. Twenty-some boys and their dogs crowded before the gates, waiting for them to open. Some of them jockeyed for position, trying to get closer to the front, but Yek Pack, the largest group, held the forefront without any serious challenge. They also had the closest door to the gates, probably for this very reason. We, being the newest and weakest, waited at the rear.
When the heavy gates opened, it was a mad dash forward. Not knowing what to expect, I held my pack back until we knew more. We broke out onto the sand just in time to see buckets of meat, fruit, and vegetables thrown from the second floor balconies on the east and west sides of the gallery. The food rained down from both directions in a hail of colors, flopping onto the sand unceremoniously.
I knew how this was going to go. I’d seen this sort of thing before when rich people decided to throw food to the poor on the special days during the year. It made them feel better about themselves to throw away scraps unfit for their own tables, knowing that the lesser folk wouldn’t hesitate to snatch up their leavings from the filthy ground. I’d fought with kids over crusts of bread, sweets so rich they made your teeth ache, and half-eaten legs of roasted fowl. I’d seen kids trampled on those days and others go hungry as bullies stole food from the weaker and slower.
Not today. Not us.
“Legs! Go!” I bellowed.
“But…” He started to protest, blinking in surprise.
“Get something!” I ordered, pointing at the less crowded pile of food.
As the fastest among us, he sprang forward with his dog. They were amazingly swift, churning up dirt as they went. When they raced, all hints of weakness and timidity vanished. They were all legs and flashes of speed. Somehow, they elbowed to the front of the pack and snagged a chunk of meat and something else from the pile, astonishing others from the more established packs. Before anyone could stop them, they’d pulled free of the tangle and darted back to our sides with their prizes. Killer and his beast set up a perimeter with Dog and I, guarding our pack’s plunder.
Tiny, seeing what had been done, grinned. “This, we can do.” Without being ordered to do so, he and his little dog worked their own particular magic. If I hadn’t seen it, I’d scarcely have believed it, but I knew from watching that this must have been their trick, wherever they’d come from.
Dog and I worked as a team, too, usually with me being the distraction and Dog being the go-getter. Tiny and L.D. worked differently. Tiny worked the periphery of a crowd and was an expert at seeing overlooked morsels. With a nod or a gesture from his partner, L.D. would sneak into the crowd, weaving between feet, ankles, and haunches to grab whatever Tiny indicated. Often, that little beast would drag out something as large as itself. He made half a dozen trips, depositing his treasures before his partner’s feet. Then he’d go back for more.
By the time we were done, our squad had made off with quite a haul. We stood in a wary circle, breaking off chunks of the partially-cooked meats, still raw and bloody in spots, to share with our dogs. Bruised fruits and vegetables held little interest to the dogs, other than a few morsels here and there, so the four of us boys ate most of them. None of us much cared about the sand or dog saliva on our food. We’d all eaten worse before.
Like us, the other packs gathered in their groups to eat after completing their gathering. Pack Chahar ate where they stood, snarling and snapping at each other and the other packs. Through sheer noise and bluster, they had managed to get a little more than their share, not necessarily the choicest pieces, but a more than fair share nonetheless.
Pack Do’s behavior was the most random. Some of them had picked at the best portions from what had been offered to us all, while others horded extra for themselves. It was a group that was together, but apart. They clearly had a lot of leeway to do their own thing within their pack, so long as they did not interfere with each other.
Their leader ate while he paced the edge of their pack, guarding them with his large black dog. With his torn lip and cheek, eating looked difficult for him; he ate only on the good side of his mouth. He caught me watching him and sent me a nasty glare that his beast echoed. We looked away after meeting his gaze for a stretch of time I felt did not threaten him, but also did not show fear. That was important.
Pack Se was the quietest and calmest, of course. They sat calmly and ate, passing food among themselves so they all received an even amount. Their pack leader, the massive boy with the bulldog companion, met my gaze and nodded when they saw that we were doing similarly. He was not being nice exactly, but it was an expression of acceptance. I suspected we had the least to fear from that group, but looks could be deceiving.
Pack Yek did their own thing, and, being the largest group, no one bothered them. They ate in near silence, taking care of their dogs first, themselves second. As one, they looked over at us, the newcomers, eyeing us with the strange unity that we all found unnerving. They looked away as one, leaving us with no clue as to which one of them was their leader. Maybe they didn’t need one.
Afterward, Tiny and L.D. scouted for leftovers, finding some, but nothing of great value, like a fig that had been crushed beneath someone’s heel, now more sand than fruit, or a small poultry bone. They were nothing that we wanted to eat, but L.D. relished in the search. Perhaps that would be a useful skill to cultivate. We all let L.D. keep his finds. He contentedly sat on the sand and gnawed on that poultry bone with a whole lot of self-satisfaction, steadying it with his paws so that his needle-sharp teeth could worry at its edges. Tiny sat proudly beside him and watched.
After our meal, the small eastern gate opened, much to our pack’s surprise, but not to our fellows, who seemed to expect it. We followed the others through the small gate, moving single file down the tunnel and into a walled garden area filled with scrub grasses and a few shrubs. Other than a few birds that startled and flew away when we entered and perhaps a few bugs or scorpions that might have made their home in the grasses and shrubs, the area was empty of other animals. I doubted most animals would have wanted to live in such an area anyway. It was an attempt to not look like a cage, but it was still a fenced yard.
There was enough area for all of us to stretch our legs, but not enough to get any real privacy, especially with the presence of a dozen auburn-robed guards that patrolled with crossbows atop the walls. They walked the lengths of the three exterior walls, the fourth wall being the side of the main building. The walls were three times as high as I was tall, and they were thick enough to walk two men abreast along the top. There were squat towers along the eastern side at the two corners that sat away from the main building. Atop the walls in the two places where the walls met the main building, there were small wooden doors, allowing the guards entry to and from the eastern wing of the complex.
We watched the others at first, trying to decide what we were supposed to be doing, but most of them simply watched as their dogs relieved themselves on anything in sight, be it a bush, the walls, a patch of hardy desert grass, or, in a couple case, even each other.
For a few brief moments, the walls and divisions between our groups seemed to melt. Despite their sizes and types, the dogs seemed to have a secret language of play that they all knew. They began to kick at dirt, run, chase each other, and play in the manner of dogs. It was infectious, to the point where even the more standoffish canines from Pack Yek began to get involved.
Dog stood aside, watching the others play from my side. I’d have encouraged him to go, but he and I both knew that he was different. These were all domesticated dogs, no matter how vicious or tough some of them might be. Dog was different, a breed apart, a desert animal meant for the wild, yet somehow attached to me. We’d found each other and made our own pack long before this place had forced us to join another. Castoffs, both of us, we would never truly belong.
The rest of my new pack had run off, playing and running, stretching their legs alongside their dogs. They, at least, knew a few moments of freedom. Maybe next time we would as well, I thought, knowing in my heart we would never fully fit in, no matter how we tried. Still, if it helped us get back to Nokomi, we’d try. We could always pretend, learning to mimic their ways.
Then, the bells began to ring again, and we once more segregated into our packs and filed back inside. This time, I gleaned from listening to the other packs, we were to have lessons.
It was time to learn how to play at their games, but which game would we play first? I actually hoped it would be fighting, and, from the looks of it, Pack Chahar’s leader did, too.
After our orientation, we were taken through the north gates, which all but told me that the way out was through the south gates. Although, that way there were also towers that I’d seen lofted over the rest of the building. I wasn’t sure of the exact layout, but memorizing landmarks was something one learned to do after living on the streets, where one dark, smelly alley could look much like another, unless one learned to memorize landmarks, some at ground level and others overhead.
The towers meant that anyone coming or going from the Kennel would have to be careful to avoid being seen. Dog and I knew how to be quiet and pass from shadow to shadow, but I guessed that there would be little near the building and along the way to hide with, and we still didn’t know where we were going. Like it or not, Dog and I were in this for the long haul. We’d have to learn what we could, and then move along, hopefully to Nokomi’s side.
That started with following Kalb through the north gates and into the Kennel’s housing area, what he referred to as the Dog House. The smell of animals wafted out to meet us as soon as the gates swung open. In fact, I even noticed the telltale signs of territorial marking on the inside of the tunnel. Dog and I glanced at each other, resisting the urge to mark over the other markings. The feisty, smallest boy was not so inhibited. He and his miniature dog relieved themselves freely on their way down the stone passage. Strangely, no one attempted to stop them. Kalb grinned at the pair, smiling toothily, almost approvingly.
We emerged into a dank hall that smelled very strongly of dog, wet and otherwise. The musky odor pervaded the entire dim building, having penetrated the walls and floors. I did not mind it, but I imagined anyone not of our kind would find the stench unbearable. Of course, Dog and I had grown up in an alley.
Eight rooms split off from the hallway, four to each side, each marked only with an arched entry and no door of any kind. From the sounds and smells coming from the end of the hall, where there was a ninth door, I knew there was a bathing room. Tracks, both human and canine, led from the room at the end to the smaller rooms set on either side of the hall. Our only lighting came from several skylights, all easily two or three stories overhead. There was certainly no escape that way.
“You four will settle into any room in these halls. You may choose. Four of them are already taken, and their owners would not take lightly to you attempting to take their room, but if that is your will, you may attempt to do so.” Kalb smiled at the thought.
I thought I saw some heads poking out of the doorways toward the end of the hall, but Kalb’s speech was not over, and I wanted to pay attention. The rule of the streets was to know the rules. You had to know how things worked before you started doing things, or you could make some enemies needlessly. I was not afraid, but I was wary. These were not simple street kids. They each had a partner like Dog, and I was no longer the kid with a special advantage.
“You will all stay together, looking after each other as a pack. These are your littermates. It is up to you to decide who is in charge. In the way of dogs, I’m sure you’ll all sort it out.”
“This is Pack Yek.” He indicated the nearest doorway, where eight boys lounged on piles of straw with their dogs. Most were older than me, and they had a curious look about them in that they turned their heads exactly at the same moment as their dogs. The synchronicity was unnerving, as if they’d forged such a profound bond, not just with their dogs but with each other, that they acted in unison. They looked at us in a clearly disinterested way, mostly because they saw as no threat. Four to eight wasn’t the kind of odds I was looking for.
We moved on.
“Pack Do.” Kalb announced at the next door. Only four boys sat in this room, but they clearly had something to prove. They bristled at us in a very discouraging way. The four of them looked more intimidating than the eight boys in the other room had, despite their lesser numbers. They were certainly more overt in their aggression. A boy stood near the door with his arms folded across his cheek. He wore a vicious a scar across his cheek that ended in a torn lower lip that had never healed quite right. A powerful, black dog slavered beside him, lips peeled back in a toothy promise of violence. “Move on.” The scarred boy growled at us.
“Pack Se.” This group was a calmer bunch. The five of them sat in a circle, grooming their animals and each other. They chose not to look up. It was almost as if they welcomed the challenge, but knew it would not come. The five of them looked quite capable of defending themselves. They were led by a powerfully-built boy that was easily as large as Adish, despite being an adolescent. A bulldog was draped across his lap, gazing at us with calm, red-rimmed eyes. The tip of its tongue stuck out between its protruding lower canines. Other than the bulldog, none of them, boy or dog, gave us any attention.
“Pack Chahar.” This pack was clearly and literally behind the smallest boy, who paced beside a dog far larger than himself, a beast that might have been larger than Kalb’s own dog. The thick fur on the beast looked nearly impenetrable, and the growl coming from its chest was as deep as a drum. The other five boys and their dogs stood at the back of the room.
“Fresh meat!” The pack leader called out at us menacingly, pounding on his chest.
Of course, our smallest friend’s little dog didn’t care much for such taunting. The little dog darted into their room, skidding to a halt just inside the doorway to snarl at the whole lot of them.
“You want to take a bite of us? Try it!” His owner shouted, backing up his miniscule dog immediately.
He was ready for a fight, and Pack Chahar’s leader was willing to give it to him. With a signal, his massive dog charged, its gaping maw about to be the last thing the tiny dog would ever see.
I knew very few swear words, but I understood their function very well. In that very moment, I needed more of them than I actually knew. I jumped forward and grabbed the boy by the shoulders, hauling him back from the room. At the same moment, Dog seized the troublemaker pup in his jaws, clamping just hard enough to carry him without harming him. Even being carried in another dog’s mouth, the little terror was not having any of it, snapping and snarling at everyone around him as we backed out of the room.
Pack Chahar’s leader stood in shock as his giant dog’s jaws came up empty. I put myself between the rest of our fledgling group and his beast. “No fighting. Not today.”
Chahar’s leader grinned at that. I knew his type. Had I just stopped the fight, he would not have been satisfied, but I’d promised him a fight. He’d always be looking for one – that was the sort of person he was. Except, I planned on giving him that fight on my terms. The only problem was that he’d be looking to do the same, and there were two more of them than there were us.
“A new room for Pack Panj, then.” Kalb announced with great amusement. Apparently, watching us establish the pecking order of our mixed society was quite entertaining to him.
There were four other empty rooms. I chose one as far from Pack Chahar as possible. There was no sense trying to get in their faces any more than need be.
Kalb left us there to get settled in, leaving us with only this last piece of advice: “This is going to be hard. Find your place in it and learn your lessons well.” Perhaps most importantly, he also added, “Food is served twice a day. Don’t miss it, or you go hungry. There isn’t always enough, and the weak might not eat.”
He departed then, leaving us in the dusty room. There were a few worn blankets in the corner, but they all smelled of piss. One sniff told me who’d done it, and I had a strong suspicion the other three empty rooms would be similarly befouled. I already hated the guy, but his dog was the largest of any I’d seen, so he’d have to be taken down carefully.
Left to our own devices, the four of us glanced at each other. There was no furniture and nothing but piss-soaked blankets in our room, so we sized each other up. None of us seemed particularly impressed with any of the others in our small group. The long-legged boy with the scrawny-looking dog seemed the timidest of our bunch; he refused to meet many of our gazes for more than a few seconds, and his dog looked ready to run and play, or at least run away. The stocky boy with his dangerous-looking dog had done and said nothing. He met us with even, emotionless stares. He’d been content to follow us around and see how things played out, but I had a strong suspicion he would have jumped into that fight had it actually started. That left our small friend. He wasn’t happy about how everything had gone down.
“Look, mutt.” He started, putting his finger in my face. His little dog backed him up, but he eyed Dog warily. His trip in Dog’s mouth was far too recent to forgive or forget just yet.
“Did you want to get killed for nothing?” I demanded, slapping his hands aside before he could say much else.
“He wasn’t going to do nuthin to us! L.D. and I are too fast for him!” He protested.
With six sets of eyes on him, he withered a bit, but looked as if he were formulating a new excuse. I didn’t give him the time to do so. “We will fight him. We will hurt him… Just not now. We do it on our time. Now is not that time.”
The boy opened his mouth but closed it. He looked mollified, for now. He took his little dog to the corner and gave him a look over.
I settled to the floor and gave them all a moment. I looked around the room. A pair of narrow, barred windows were our only light and fresh air. I watched motes of dust float past in the two columns of light that the windows admitted into the room. The ground beneath me was hard-packed earth covered with rushes. The walls were cool stone. It was cleaner than many places I’d slept, but it was not home.
I looked at Dog, and he gave me a look. I gave him a pat on the back and examined his flank, where Kalb’s dog had bitten him. His wound seemed clean and didn’t seem to bother him that badly. Dog looked at me again, perking his round ears. He wasn’t going to let this go.
He and I both knew we had to bond with these strangers. This would not be the sort of bond I had with Dog or with Nokomi. No, this was not a bond of blood or family. This was a bond of brotherhood created by necessity, and I needed to start it. “I’m Go. This is Dog.” I looked around at them expectantly. Dog and I demanded introductions with our unwavering eyes.
“Killer.” The stocky boy announced. Apparently that was the name of both him and his dog. I could live with that. They both looked the part.
The skinny boy looked at his dog, smiling as he petted its narrow head. He played with the long hair of its floppy ears. “Legs, you can call us, both of us.”
“Tiny and L.D. – Little Dog.” Came the final answer from the corner. “If you needed to know.”
I wasn’t going to push things much more than that. They were my pack, and I’d set myself up as their leader, for now at least. I hadn’t wanted to or expected to, but Tiny had pushed me to it with his brash act before. I closed my eyes for a while, trying to settle into my role as Pack Leader for Pack Panj, but my momentary peace would not last.
I woke to a pounding on the bars of my cage. I lay in a pile of straw, huddled against Dog. My thoughts felt thick, heavy. Something was not right. The last things I recalled were eating and the caravan resuming its move toward the destination…
“Wake up.” Someone ordered, rattling a stick on the bars. I doubted this was the first time the rattling had occurred.
We must have fallen asleep, but my mouth had an odd taste and my limbs felt leaden. Dog rolled over and stiffly rose. He favored the one leg, but seemed otherwise fine, despite the fog that still clouded our thoughts.
The cage was opened, and several large men with weapons prodded and herded us down a hall into a large open area, under a dazzling sunlight. We entered a sandy square with a statue twice the height of a man in the middle of it. The sun was overhead, and my eyes took a moment to adjust enough to take it all in.
More of a rectangle than a square, the area was open to the air, with the sun beating down on us from a nearly cloudless sky. I blinked several times and shielded my eyes until they adjusted. From the sky, I could tell it was at least midmorning. I turned to slowly to get a better look at the building.
Pillars placed every few paces completely surrounded the rectangle, reminding us that we were still in a cage. Between the pillars were painted mud walls, likely plastered over heavy bricks. The pillars and walls were only broken in four places, each place at the middle of one of the four walls. To the north and south there were large double gates made of wood and banded with iron. They were wide enough for a wagon to drive through. To the east and west, there were small doors, large enough for a person to pass through only. Currently, all four doors and gates were closed. They, like the walls, had a sturdiness about them.
A balconied second floor was above us, open except for a railing and the pillars, which partially obscured sightlines, seeing how they extended all the way to the tiled roof that they held up. Faces lined the north side, those of both dogs and boys spaced around the pillars along the balcony railing. To the east and west, the balconies were mostly empty, except for a few guards in auburn robes and conical helmets stationed at intervals with their halberds or crossbows. To the south, we saw a large, well-outfitted box with luxurious chairs and benches. Official-looking men and well-dressed soldiers filled about half of that box, looking down on us from their gallery.
We stood before the statue that wore a face that I knew belonged to Nokomi’s father. Kalb had mentioned serving an Emperor, and I’d known that Kalb had been with Nokomi’s father on the day I’d first met her, but somehow I’d never really put it together that this meant she was the Emperor’s daughter. Now it all hit me, and I felt exceedingly stupid for not having realized just how different the two of us were. I knew little of social pecking orders, other than that I’d been at the bottom of the social ladder once Dog and I stepped out of the alleys, but I’d never realized just how far apart our stations actually were.
I frowned at the statue and then let my eyes drift over my shoulder to the line of canine faces and the boys that watched us from the balcony railing above the north gate. There were around twenty dogs and the exact same number of boys. They came in a variety of sizes and ages, just like the beasts they were with. Most of them had hard looks about their eyes, while a few looked cruelly amused by our plight, and fewer still wore sympathetic looks. They all knew what was about to befall us, likely having gone through this same thing themselves.
The south gates opened. The boys beside me flinched. There were four of us and four dogs. Dog and I looked to be the oldest of the bunch. There were also four guards with us in the sandy square, one for each pair of a dog and a boy. Beside Dog and I, there was a scrawny boy with a long-limbed dog, each looking as if they might spring off and outrun the fleetest desert cat at any moment. Next to him was a stocky young man, probably just a year younger than myself. He was paired with a squat, mean-looking dog with a triangular head and powerful jaws. The last and youngest of the four of us actually looked the least worried. He stood beside a tiny dog that had already bared its teeth. Like his dog, the boy had his teeth bared in a snarl.
The little dog charged blindly at the south gates as they opened, not even waiting for anyone or anything to emerge. The young boy dutifully tried to follow his dog in the attack, but he was a bit slower. The guard assigned to him lunged and caught him with a padded truncheon, striking him across the shoulders and knocking him to the ground. Sensing his partner’s distress, the boy’s dog wheeled in the sand and charged at the guard instead of the gates. The guard flinched back and tried to protect his shins from the nipping little beast.
Dog and I stared in amazement as the tenacious creature went on the offensive. The boy’s dog was honestly smaller than many rats I’d eaten in the alleys, but it was strangely undaunted by the size and strength of its opponent. The little dog, with ears nearly as large as its body, darted in and seized the guard’s ankle in his mouth, biting hard. Its needle teeth scored a taste of blood through the man’s robes, and the guard howled, shaking his foot and shouting.
That was all the opening the boy needed. He grabbed that raised leg and shoved it upward with all of his might, upending the guard. Moments later, the boy was on top of the guard’s chest, scratching and snarling at his face. The north gallery behind us erupted in a cheers and excited barks as the boy appeared to get the better of his guard. Clearly it was something that the boys and their dogs had always wanted to try.
The moment of victory was short-lived. A barking shout, something not quite human and not quite canine but something in-between, echoed throughout the gallery. The little dog and his boy both froze and turned, as did we all. Even the crowd of boys and dogs behind us quieted in an instant.
Kalb and his mastiff strolled powerfully out onto the sand, and the gate closed behind him and three others, shutting with a thud and a clank that seemed weak after his bark. He came to a stop a few paces in front of us.
“Stand.” Kalb growled.
The little boy and his much smaller dog got off of the guard, who dusted himself off and tried to stand tall behind his charge, but he withered under Kalb’s yellow-eyed glare. Somehow, I doubted we’d see this guard much more, and if we did, he’d certainly try to get even with the boy for the shame he’d just inflicted upon him.
Kalb was not the type to pace back and forth needlessly. He stood front and center from our group and addressed us all, swiveling his sharp eyes as he did so. “You four are at the Kennel. This is your new home. It is where you will learn to serve your purpose.” Teeth, his giant mastiff, stood at attention at his side, almost begging one of us to step out of line.
He held his hands out to indicate the three nearly-identical men that had come out onto the sand with him. “These will be your trainers and teachers.”
All three were dressed in the same uniform, exactly the same except for their colors: one dressed in red, another in blue, and the last in grey. Each had shrewd, dark eyes and sharp, bony features. It was entirely possible that they were brothers. I doubted I’d be able to tell them apart if they all wore the same color of outfit. They wore their hair close-cropped and were clean-shaven, which was something of an oddity. Most men in the city wore beards or at least mustaches. They were symbols of their adulthood and status. The richer and more powerful, the grander the beard they usually wore.
“Your instructors will show you all you need to know, and you will excel at your lessons. You will take everything they say to heart.” Kalb elaborated.
“Red will teach you all you know of fighting.” Red bowed stiffly from the waist as he was introduced. “You will learn to take the best of your raw animal nature and focus it in effective fighting techniques that make the best of your special abilities. Using skills from both beast and man, you will become more efficient killers.”
“Blue will instruct you in tactics and war.” Blue bowed similarly. “You may be called upon to fight in the shadows, upon the battlefield, or as a lone warrior. You will be given instruction on how to overcome your enemies under any circumstances. Even beasts use hunting tactics. They surround, confuse, and stalk their prey. You will learn to work together to overwhelm and surprise your enemies, all in the service of our Emperor, and you will learn how to effectively eliminate enemies by yourself, as needed.”
“Grey will teach you etiquette, manners, and dance.” Grey bowed with a courtly flourish, a smile twisting at the corners of his lips. I looked back and forth at my classmates, surprised by this one.
Kalb’s eyes focused on Dog and me as he explained. “You know how to be beasts. Can you also be men? The Emperor may see fit to hide you in plain sight. If you cannot eat like men, talk like men, and entertain like men, then how can you be his secret weapons? You must learn to be men, but better than men, for your dual nature makes you a savage creature in human guise.”
“Your loyalties are threefold: Respect your Emperor. Respect your teachers. Respect your pack. Without loyalties, we cannot find purpose. Without purpose, we are animals.”
Red, Blue, and Grey bowed as one, and turned sharply on their heels to depart, and our guards left then, as well. The young boy with the small dog shared a glare with his guard as he hurried from the gallery, leaving only Kalb in front of us.
It occurred to me that the four of us might have a chance to overwhelm Kalb and Teeth, killing them if we worked in concert. Yet, that only brought to mind Kalb’s words, what he’d said about learning to work together with the others. We were untrained beasts, and we would fail against a superior foe.
As if reading my thoughts or our body language, Kalb opened his robes at the throat, baring his collared neck. He held his arms wide at his side, inviting attack. “Here is your chance, the last any of you will ever have. After this, you are mine.”
I took a half step forward. Dead silence filled the place. I felt the weight of eyes from behind and the front. Everyone on the second floor was watching, dogs, boys, officers, and soldiers alike. I heard the creak of a bolt being readied in a crossbow in the eastern gallery. Kalb waved a hand in that direction, not even bothering to look. Somehow, we both knew the bolt in the weapon was eased away from my direction.
Despite it being a guaranteed death, I hesitated, foot raised to take another step forward. Dog, wounded though he was, stood poised and ready to follow me into battle. Kalb watched me, only the slightest hint of surprise in his eyes, and something else, was it approval?
As much as I did not care for the situation I’d been placed in, there was one thing I had heard loudest of all: We were to be put in service to the Emperor. If that was true, the there was a chance that I could return to Nokomi’s side if I learned well, because the service of the Emperor could bring me back to the city, and that meant working near Nokomi.
I made up my mind then and there. I would learn my lessons, and I would learn them better than any of these others. I’d learn all they could teach me, and I’d get back to her. I put my foot down and stepped back. Dog feel in line and relaxed beside me.
“Good.” Kalb announced with a smile, covering his neck once more. “Now let us go get you all settled in to your new homes.
The ride away from town would have been uneventful and long, if we were not mourning the loss of Nokomi from our pack once more. At least we had the memory of her face in our minds. She was so alike what she had been, and yet more. The years between meetings had seen her grow from that wild child in white we’d met in the alleys into the beautiful creature we’d seen in the Bazaar.
Dog and I could not speak of our own beauty. We were wild creatures, the two of us, but we had both grown in strength and stature. Despite my young age, I had no doubt that I might soon be the size of Adish, although of a wirier build. Like the desert dog that Dog was, I would be all sinewy strength, while Adish was heavily-muscled from his time working the forge. If you’ve ever fought with a dog, pound for pound they are much meaner and leaner than any human. I knew I’d take after Dog, rather than my parents, whoever they had been. Dog and I were pack, of a type, if not species.
When the city began to fade from view, the sprawling stretch of buildings fading from where it filled our whole horizon to being a collection of dots on the horizon, we examined our surroundings. The city I’d grown up in was surrounded by sandy hills and scrublands covered with sparse, dry brush. Many of the trees were little taller than myself, and those that were looked twisted and dry, only fully blooming and looking alive when the rains came. Dusky-skinned and scaly critters skittered in the underbrush, hiding from our caravan as it passed. Night time would have shown more activity, as much of the life out here hid from the sun’s harsh light.
We were not alone. There were other jail wagons in our train, but I could not make out more than the one in front of us, and that one, too, carried a boy and his dog. Was he another like me? I had to think it was so. He would not meet my eyes, but we could smell his fear wafting back to us on the wind, overwhelming the smell of horses and men. I hoped if any others took in our scents, they smelled anger and defiance, rather than fear.
Our jail wagon was drawn by a pair of stout horses, creatures bred for stamina and strength, not speed. The plodded along the sand and clay trail, driven by a pair of guardsmen who sat at the front of the wagon. We traveled for set intervals of time, at which time the line would halt. Everyone, the horses and prisoners included, would take water and food. Dog and I were given battered tin dishes of water to share along with sticks of dried meat and crusts of a thin bread.
Had I bothered to think about it, I’d have decided that the quality of food was nowhere what I’d been eating at Adish’s forge. Sherine was a far better cook. Still, we were gloomy from our forced parting with Nokomi and cared little for the taste of food. We had spent enough time on the streets to realize that we could no longer count on our next meal. We’d eat whatever was offered, regardless of its flavor or who offered it. We had to keep our strength up if we wanted to resist and escape. We had to get back to her.
She kept me going. Even Dog could not comfort me as we huddled together in a sweaty, sorrowful mass. Something in me felt torn asunder.
As we sat chewing our tough, dried meat, Kalb came riding up alongside us. He rode a horse, one that didn’t seem to care for his presence, if the way it chomped and pulled at the bit were any indication. Dog and I saw far too much of the whites of the beast’s eyes. It was clearly not comfortable with having the dog-man on its back and the mastiff trotting beside it.
“We will be there soon.” Kalb announced, as if we cared. We were certainly in no hurry to get to anywhere he wished to take us.
The silence was unpleasant. Had I grown so accustomed to speaking? There would be hours to sit in silence, so I took the bait. “Where are we going?”
“Your new home.” He grinned, his sharp teeth flashing through his beard. He certainly looked as much animal as man, more sometimes than others. Did I look like that ever?
“We call it the Kennel.” I stared at him blankly. He continued. “It is a place where we gather people like you and I, those of the Old Blood.”
“Others like us?” Clearly, he meant people bonded to animals, like Dog and I or himself and his mastiff. Other than him, I’d never met another like me, not in all the time I’d wandered the city.
“We are a special breed, you and I, closer to the animals than our fellow men. Our type is ancient, fewer now than we used to be, when our people first came to the desert and learned to crouch beside the firelight with our animals to protect us from the night, before the time of cities and industry. Now… we’re seen as an oddity, beast men, looked down upon as lesser beings, relics of the past”
I had nothing to say to this, though my mind could picture men of the distant past, wandering the open lands with animals at our sides. His words rang true, but even then, I doubted that every man could have been as Dog and I were. No, I suspected even then we might have been something special, if not as rare as we were today.
I felt a pang, suddenly very glad to have Dog, hating the idea of not having something bonded so closely to me. But was that what it was like for Adish and Sherine? They had a bond, not unlike what Dog and I shared, but also very different. Was that why people all sought connection?
“What’s his name?” I asked, looking at Kalb’s companion.
The mastiff glanced up at us, panting and making an expression that looked like a human’s smile. Kalb glanced between his dog and the two of us in the cage. “His name is Teeth.”
“You see, we are very alike, you and I, more so than the others I’ve found. I am what you could become if you tried. Right now, you only live to fill your bellies and make it to another day. It is a simple, selfish existence. The Kennel will give you a purpose, someone to serve. We will make you more than you are.”
“Or you will not.” I smiled.
Kalb leaned toward the bars of our cage, putting his amber eyes close to mine. “Every dog serves a master. I serve the Emperor, a just and powerful man. Who will yours master be? Who will you place above yourself and serve?”
I met his gaze unblinkingly. “Nokomi.” I answered, not knowing why at first, but I felt the truth of it as I said it. Dog yipped in agreement.
Kalb backed away and sniffed at us. Then his eyes scanned our faces, locking onto the scars across my forehead. “Curious.” He announced, sharing a significant glance with Teeth. He turned back to us and smiled, as if he knew a secret, a secret that even Dog and I didn’t yet know. “Maybe you will. I shall be interested to see how this plays out. I pray you stick to your words.”
“Do not worry about us.” I replied, mostly false bravado, and he knew it. We’d never been so far from home or so alone before. We were creatures of the streets. They were all we knew, and now we’d have to learn to survive in a new place, but we were survivors no matter what.
“Oh, I have a feeling you’ll be sorely tested where you’re going.” Kalb smiled with more than a little menace.
Shortly after, the caravan began moving once more, taking us far enough away that my home city was no longer even visible on the horizon. Even though he said we were near our destination, it was a long while before we got there, and sleep took us first.
As the soldiers closed in around us, Dog and I searched for an out. We were born to evade and escape. Had it just been the soldiers, we’d have made it. We could have bitten and clawed and slid between two of them and lost them in the crowd, even if I didn’t have Claw with me, my sharp sliver of metal. But the soldiers weren’t the only ones there. Wherever we looked to slide away, the collared man and his dog found us.
With a snarl, Dog and I threw ourselves at him, being of one mind. In a flash, his features changed, teeth baring and face narrowing. His eyes, usually an amber color, shifted to golden yellow and bored into us as his claw-like hands seized each of us by the throat. With surprising strength, he lifted both of us clear from the ground. His mastiff growled at our dangling legs, its face so near we could feel the hot breath coming from its massive maw.
The collared man growled deep in his throat. “You’re not getting away this time.”
Our eyes sought out Nokomi’s as she pleaded on our behalf and pulled weakly at the man’s arms. Like a child slapping at a wave, she was nothing to his strength. No wonder, for Dog and I were helpless, too.
All I could do was tell Nokomi a name. Adish would wonder what became of us, and it was clear we’d not see him again. “Adish…” I managed to choke out.
Her terrified eyes registered confusion. “Kalb! You’re hurting them!” She screamed as we choked.
The collared man shrugged her off with a snarl and shifted us around so he held us by the scruffs of our necks, as a mother dog would carry disobedient pups. Then he began pushing his way through the crowd, and he was the sort of man that people parted way for. Many watched, but they did so from a safe distance, regarding the whole lot of us as one might eye a pack of feral dogs. Perhaps it was the yellow eyes or the snarling lips.
I kicked my legs and twisted, only to find his iron grip tighten. “Adish!” I shouted back at her.
“What?” She still didn’t understand.
“Tell Adish and Barid! Tell them about us!”
Nokomi froze, understanding crossing her features. “Kalb! Stop!” Others paused, for she had a commanding tone about her voice, but it had no effect on the man.
The collared man laughed and charged through the last few paces of the Bazaar. Strangely, my eyes finally managed to take in the full wonders of the place, as if gulping down sights I felt I’d never see again. If we were to die or be taken away, Dog and I wanted to remember this place, the place where we were once again brought to Nokomi’s side.
A jail wagon was summoned. Kalb, the collared man was apparently called, stood patiently, holding us as he waited, though he set us down so our feet could touch the ground. No amount of twisting could free of from those hands. The guards flanked around us, a protective circle that would not open to permit Nokomi, though not for lack of trying.
Nokomi tried pleading. “Please, Kalb! He’s my friend.”
“Little Miss, I’m very aware of who this is, of what he is, and your father has plans for them both.” A broad grin broke across Kalb’s bearded face.
I watched that grin from the corner of my eyes and struggled not to tremble with fear. Whatever plans Nokomi’s father envisioned for us, I strongly suspected they meant collars. Would we become like this man? What would we be without our freedom. Even in my oldest memories, we’d always been free. Life had not been easy, but it had been lived by our choices. Now, what would it be?
“Let me say goodbye, at least?” Nokomi made as if she might press between the two guards in front of us, but they did not budge.
“Say your words from there.” Kalb said coldly.
Nokomi’s brow furrowed and her mouth worked, but no words came out. I, too, had no words. Instead, I reached out, and our fingertips nearly met when she reached between the soldiers, but Kalb barked and order and the soldiers closed ranks, denying us even that.
Down the avenue, I could see a jail wagon coming. It must have shown in my eyes, because Nokomi turned and looked. She saw it, too.
“Goren…” She choked out.
“That’s not my name.” I whispered back.
Tears ran freely down her cheeks as they dragged Dog and I toward the wagon. Not one to give up, Dog twisted suddenly and bit Kalb’s into the webbing between his thumb and forefinger, latching tightly about his hand. I began tearing and snarling at him like a beast as well, fighting with every ounce of my strength to be free. How I longed to have Claw in my hands. Why had I forgotten my blade? Had my times with Adish made me so careless?
Kalb grunted, but did not release us no matter how I kicked and jerked at his grasp. I could not free myself, even standing with my feet on his chest, perpendicular to the ground, I could not pull free. Kalb just eyed the two of us with the contempt a proud predator might show for another’s cub or wounded prey. We simply weren’t a threat to him.
The giant mastiff lunged and tore into Dog’s hindquarters. He yelped and was forced to release his jaws from Kalb’s hand. Whimpering and crumpling to the ground, Dog snarled at the larger dog, but he was beaten. I collapsed to the ground, feeling Dog’s agony as sharply as if it were my own. I shielded Dog’s body with my own, no longer caring about escaping; I only wanted to protect Dog. The mastiff backed away from my snarls.
“Kalb!” Nokomi shouted, sharp little knife in hand, raised above her palm.
Kalb shook his head. “No, Little Miss, you wouldn’t.”
She hesitated, knife wavering above her skin. Then she screamed in frustration. Whatever she’d planned on doing was done, and I hardly felt being lifted into the wagon with its bars and locks.
I’d never been in a cage before, but that was not nearly as concerning as the bite on Dog’s flank. Dog and I huddled in the cage, awaiting our fate. Nokomi watched as we began to roll away, and we locked eyes, Dog and I with her.
We burned her face into our souls and watched her fade from sight, lost in the crowds of the city.
A few days later, I discussed the rat meat with Adish, who found the whole situation very amusing. Barid looked a bit ill, having confessed to frequenting that same booth many times without knowing that it was rat he had eaten.
I didn’t understand their distinction between eating rats and goats. They were both made of meat, and one was far easier to catch within the city. I’d even eaten bugs or worms when I was hungry enough, but I did not share this with them, feeling that they might not appreciate what hunger did to you. I doubted they had ever worried about their next meal.
Adish’s mate brought food one day. I’d always wondered where all of Adish’s delicious foods came from, as I’d never seen him actually cook, but on this day, I saw a woman carry in a tray of bowls and a dish of flat bread. Dog’s ears perked, recognizing the clatter of dishes.
“Sherine!” Adish greeted the woman warmly, taking the lunch tray from her. The smells coming off the steaming pot of stew made my stomach grumble. Dog’s nose twitched excitedly, his tail following suit.
Sherine was dressed in long red skirt, covered by a blue-green long tunic that was belted by a thick, braided stretch of cloth that had a decorated tail that hung from her waist. A scarf was draped over her shoulders and around her neck, with a matching one covering most of her dark hair. A few strands of wavy hair had escaped her scarf, sneaking out around her ears down onto her neck and cheeks. She had a kindly look about her. Dog and I instantly liked her.
She greeted Barid warmly, clearly having met him several times before. She knew her husband’s assistant. Then her dark eyes took in the sight of Dog and I. Her hand went to her mouth, and she whispered something to her husband. They shared a significant gaze before she glided over to offer me a hand.
I stood and took her hand in mine, with Dog standing rising beside me, sniffing at her. He recognized her as the creator of many dishes we’d eaten, as a pleasant set of kitchen and food odors had found its way into her clothes and hands.
“I have heard much of you, Go.” She smiled as she said my name and her eyes took on a maternal cast, something I did not quite understand, but felt. “Thank you for helping my husband. Adish is a patient but hardworking man. He works far too long and too hard.” Her husband snorted a laugh.
“He feeds me. He teaches me.” I responded, unsure what else to say.
“You dear thing.” She sighed almost sadly, and regarded Dog. She offered him a hand to sniff. His round ears perked forward and he sniffed carefully, licking her hand just once.
Sherine let loose a girlish trill of a laugh, quickly drawing her hand back to her mouth to cover it as she giggled. “Enjoy the food, you four.” She winked at Dog, whose tongue lolled out. “I must go back home. The children are waiting for their baths.”
This statement startled me. I hadn’t realized that Adish had children of his own. I suspected that Barid was somehow related to Adish, perhaps the offspring of a brother or a friend, but I lacked the words or reason to ask. They looked similar around the eyes and nose, and their close relationship made it seem as if Barid was something of a son to Adish. So, the idea that Adish had actual children at home seemed strange to me. Maybe he was just good with young ones.
I looked at Dog as Sherine retreated. Were me more of his young ones that he cared for?
Then I watched the two of them, husband and wife, whispering to each other in a way that made both of them smile. Their hands briefly touched, their fingertips ever so slightly caressing. Adish touched a loose strand of her hair, tucking it back behind her ear, and a blush filled her cheeks. I watched every detail as she left, favoring Adish with one last look before she went. Dog and I absorbed the exchange it in a way that it stuck with me for days.
In fact, when it was our day off, Dog and I went walking the Lower Market, and I was still thinking about the way they’d acted, pondering the exchange of words that I couldn’t hear or understand. We approached our favorite meat stand, me, absent in thought, and Dog with stomach growling, only to find that we were not welcome there.
“Begone, Bringer of Bad Luck!” The bearded man called out at us as he caught sight of our approach. He actually came out from behind his counter and brandished a knife at us, except I didn’t notice it until I felt a sense of alarm from Dog.
The two of us backed away, our hunger and smiles fading to be replaced with anger at being treated in such a fashion. Dog and I both growled at the man, and his advance failed, but he’d made it clear that we were not going to get any food from him, and we took our business and coins elsewhere.
“Let us find other, tastier rat!” I declared aloud to Dog. He barked in agreement, and the line of customers once again began whispering amongst themselves while the bearded man called what seemed to be very impolite words after us.
Disappointed and hungry, we found ourselves carried with the flow of traffic through the Lower Market, to its edge and the wide avenues beyond. There, carts and trains of wagons driven by oxen and horses alike vied for position to load and unload goods from the markets. People far beyond my simple ability to count roamed the area, all bustling and in a hurry to get somewhere. They were such busy folk, looking like ants scrambling over their hill.
Down the avenue, which was lined by far nicer buildings than those I lived among, I saw a large building with a blinding copper dome atop it, shining like a beacon in the sun. From that direction arose such music, noise, and clamor, that I found myself drawn to it. That way led to the Bazaar, the market for those too rich to bother with the Lower Market. I debated going, and decided it was at least worth a look. And why not? Dog and I had free time and coins to spend.
Dog tagged along at my heels. Together we wove through carts, wagons, carriages, and foot traffic that flowed toward and away from the Bazaar. As we neared the domed building, the clothes of the people around us began to take on more ornamentation. We even saw some people riding on chairs that were carried down the street by sets of four heavily-muscled men, all with shaved heads and all so alike in looks and costume that they may have been born of the same womb. Dog and I looked up at them, wondering if they felt silly being carried when they could be walking. It was certainly not for us, that sort of ride.
The dome marked the large entrance to the Bazaar, which was an expansive building. We darted inside, astonished to find the difference between it and the Lower Market. Where the Lower Market was mostly open air, with canopies stretched overhead and awnings hanging from many stalls, the Bazaar was completely under the roof of a pavilion that stretched as far as my eyes could see, often branching off in side passages that were packed with shops and a press of humanity surging through the place in search of goods. Of course, I could not see that far, truly, because the crowds and sheer quantity of goods displayed in this marketplace were astounding!
There were all manners of people here, with skin in tones I did not even know existed. Many wore strangely decorated clothes, costumes of colors I’d not seen before, or they wore their hair in ways that seemed bizarre to Dog and I. I supposed that, like Dogs, people came in many shapes and styles. We paused to look at a pair of men who wore their hair matted into geometrical patterns and packed with colored clays. One woman wore so many golden rings and bracelets it looked as if she wore golden gloves.
And the animals! The menagerie of creatures displayed just in the first few paces of the Bazaar left me astonished. Many, I’d never seen in my life. The goods were just as varied. I only knew the uses of a fraction of these contraptions and devices that people clamored for.
We shoved deeper, feeling the people gather closer and tighter as we went. Soon, it got to the point where we could no longer just stand and watch, or we’d be pushed aside by the masses of people. Dog and I felt jostled like we’d never been in the Lower Markets or even the cramped alleyways we’d grown up in. Faces, feet, clothes, and bodies pressed all around us, pushing this way or that.
We darted one way, only to find our way blocked by an entourage of baggage carriers proceeding in the opposite direction, following their masters. Turning another way, we were blocked by two men carrying a raw goat, trussed up to a long stretch of wood. There was no end to these people! It was maddening.
Dog snarled and we pushed our way through the crowd finally, finding an opening next to a small shop that sold bolts of fabric that had been arranged in arcs of color for the customers to examine. I’d never seen such an assortment of colors. A few women milled about, whispering to each other or touching this fabric or that, but we were free of the press of people that pushed down the main aisle of the Bazaar. Dog and I gazed back at the traffic, not relishing the thought of riding that flood back the way we’d come in.
Kneeling beside Dog, we took comfort in the brief respite. My fingers dug into his coarse fur, ruffling it, feeling the oils of his fur as they rubbed into my hands. His eyes sought mine, and he gave me a reassuring lick on the face. I smiled at him, and everything was right again, if just for a moment.
I stood again and took in my surroundings. We were in a small side row off the main aisle. The main aisle was to our right, the fabric shop was in front us, and behind us was another shop where a wizened old man sat in a rocking chair, staring at us. His hair was long, as were his fingernails. He held a long pipe in his mouth, which smoldered with a cloyingly sweet smoke that was nearly blue. Beside him sat dozens of wooden boxes filled with dried leaves and other herbs that smelled quite strongly, even more so to Dog, who huffed and backed away. The man made no reaction to us, but continued to watch with something that could not even be called interest. However, he sprang up from his chair and came to life as a customer approached.
Still, I had this feeling like we were being watched. If it had not been the man, then who was it? Dog and I were usually quite good with this sort of a thing. It was a survival instinct, the ability to know when you were being watched. Our eyes scanned the main row, but those people were too busy moving about their own business. The women at the cloth shop had cast occasional glances our way, but they were warier than anything, and they were more interested in Dog than they were in me. Most likely, they worried about being bitten or me stealing their money.
I was suddenly very aware that my clothes marked me as something of an undesirable. Adish and Barid had never made me feel that way, but I was clearly an outsider here. Perhaps I would have to buy nicer clothes, supposing we ever came to this crowded place again. Somehow, I doubted we would.
The feeling of being watched persisted. Dog and I swiveled around, looking past these first two shops to the next two down our row. One sold ornamental birds, all in cages fashioned of delicate curls of silver and bronze that I doubted Adish could match. His metalworking was more functional than beautiful. I scanned the scarved women and the robed men viewing the cages, but could find none that were more interested in me than the colorful birds with their long feathers and curiously-shaped beaks.
The other shop had dozens of small glass vials, and the smell coming from them was quite heady. The assault of scents was quite strong; most were floral, but many were musky as well or somewhere in-between. A short, bald man with a thin grey mustache that had been shaped to curl at its ends seemed to run the shop. His robes were ornate and immaculate, and he smelled like a flower garden after a rain shower brought them into bloom. It was odd, very unlike the masculine scents of sweat, fire, and metal I was used to smelling on Adish, odors accumulated from his work around the forge. I doubted this man had ever been forced to work up a sweat.
A flash of white skirts and a reddish-brown vest caught my eyes, one of the many customers gathered around the decorative merchant. I looked more closely, taking in the golden embroidery that lined the vest and also the matching shawl that was draped over the girl’s shoulders. Long, black hair had been combed and gathered until hardly a strand was out of place, and a strand of gold ornaments wrapped over the crown of her head and around her forehead. Through that, a pair of coffee eyes met my gaze, and my forehead began to tingle.
My mouth felt dry. My chest felt weird. The discomfort in my forehead became a burning that ran down my neck to my chest.
Dog whined beside me.
“Nokomi!” I’d practiced those syllables for years. It was the first new word I’d learned to speak after we parted all those years ago, and here she was now, and here I was saying her name.
“Goren!” Her eyes widened in recognition, mostly because of Dog beside me. Me, alone, she’d likely not have recognized, but with Dog beside me, we were unmistakable. She had likely been watching us without knowing who we were.
“Go.” I corrected, stepping over to her with leaden feet. I’d dreamed of this moment when our pack might be made whole again, but now I didn’t know how to act. I didn’t want it to not be true, and it felt as if walking to her might dispel the dream.
She swept over to me gracefully, reaching for my hands. A pair of confused maids flanked her, covering their mouths and staring at Dog and I as if we were not to be trusted, let alone touched.
“Go.” I repeated as her hands sought mine.
“I know.” She said softly, except it sounded like the loudest words in the world.
All the noise of the Bazaar faded away. I could not hear the call of hawkers, the clanking of knives and tools, the clink of coins, the sounds of animals, or the footsteps of hundreds of people. I took no notice of her maids or their whispers.
The tingle in my forehead became a burning. I reached to it, wincing as I recalled the savage rip the cat had dealt to my face on the day I’d met Nokomi. Dog had licked it clean for days, and the flesh had been warm and puffy, but it had never become infected as it likely should have.
Nokomi’s hand covered mine on my forehead, gently lifting it aside. Her features formed a frown as she looked me over. “I still feel you in here.” She whispered, amazed and clearly surprised.
“Mistress…” The maids tried to intervene, but Nokomi ignored them. We were the only three beings in the world.
I tried to explain. “I never stopped feeling it…”
“Feeling you.” She elaborated.
I nodded, knowing it to be true. I’d always known she was still alive, however distant and removed she might have been. It was like knowing you had a scar or a mole on your back. You might not be able to see it, but you knew it was there after seeing it in a reflection just once.
“Nokomi…” I repeated, at a loss for words otherwise.
She looked about to say something when Dog growled, pulling himself from Nokomi’s hand, the one that had sought the top of his head the same way her other hand had sought out my forehead, connecting the three of us.
I shook my head, blinking as a face swam into view, that of the collared man that had been with Nokomi’s father that one day so long ago. A deep growl from beside us warned us that his mastiff was here as well. The man’s lips curled into a smile.
“We meet again, boy.”
Nokomi turned to protest, but it was too late. With a wave of his hands, Dog and I were surrounded by a group of guards and their pointy weapons. Nokomi’s maids shrieked and hid themselves.
Strong as I was for my size and age, I was not going to win his fight, not the way they had us hedged in with steel. If I fought, he died. Dog and I knew we were about to be forced apart from Nokomi for the second time, and we didn’t know if we’d ever see her again.
Dog and I had discovered the wonder of coins, as these small metal pieces were called. Strangely, they could be exchanged for things. This made little sense to us. We understood trading a lump of meat for a pile of pomegranates, or trading a persimmon for a handful of dates, but exchanging little metal pieces for any quantity of food whatsoever seemed to be a very poor trade for the merchants. Yet, they were grateful for the little pieces of shiny metal, and we were more than pleased with the food the coins bought us.
Adish gave us a few small coins once every eight days, always on day six, the last day before the two days of rest. He showed us how to string a cord through the middle of them and hide them in a pocket, or under my shirt. Apparently he thought some pickpocket or cutpurse might lift them from my person without me noticing. He didn’t understand how serious I was about food or the coins that could buy food. Of course, even if someone was good enough to sneak them from my possession, Dog would certainly not let them get away with that. I laughed at the idea, but gave in to his suggestions, but only because I didn’t want to drop any of the precious metal bits that could be traded for delicious things.
So, Dog and I began walking about the Lower Market on our days off. At first, the merchants eyed us with distrust, me more than Dog, but as they came to know that we at least carried some money, they began trying to attract our interest with their wares. It was curious how their attitudes shifted when you shook a pocket with a cord of coins for them. The jingling metal noises produced an immediate change in their demeanors. Such simple creatures, they were.
While the assortments of colorful beads, the rainbows of cloth, and the shiny metal instruments were curious things to gaze upon, they could not fill our bellies, and we found them to be a waste of time. Dog and I didn’t much care for the vendors of caged beasts, either, though some of them did look delicious. We learned to steer clear of the stalls with dozens of small boxes filled with ground powders, spices, seeds, and herbs that made Dog sneeze, too. Instead, we went to the fruit sellers and the small cook sheds that sold spiced and grilled meats.
In our first two visits to the Lower Market, Dog and I sniffed out a particularly savory-smelling meat vendor. We stood in line, the two of us salivating profusely as we watched meat turn on a spit, sizzling and popping as the fat dripped onto the coals below. It was intoxicating as no other scent we’d ever experienced. When our turn came in line to purchase the meat, I was dumbfounded, unable to speak, so hungry had we become. It didn’t help that Dog’s sense of smell spilled over onto mine, and I could taste the meat so intensely, even though I’d not put a single morsel of it into my mouth yet!
I threw my whole cord of coins onto the counter and held out my hands to receive whatever meat he offered. Even if I had understood haggling and bargaining, I’d not have had the presence of mind to attempt it. The sweaty, bearded man behind the counter snagged the coins off the counter, cord and all, rolling the bundle over in his hand as he counted it. He eyed me, then glanced down at my companion, who licked his chops. Snorting a quick laugh, he sawed off a sizeable portion and then a second, smaller one to go with it.
The man nearly lost a hand as we grabbed for the meat. Dog, paws up on the counter, got the larger portion, and I didn’t begrudge him. He had eaten less earlier in the day. The two of us snarled and gobbled it down like a pair of savage animals. We were unaware and uncaring of the looks from the crowd around us. Never had we tasted such a tasty thing. Adish certainly didn’t offer us any food that tasted like this.
Bellies full, we licked our fingers and lips and walked off, pleased with ourselves, at least until we saw other meats and delicacies we no longer had coins for. Dog and I gave each other a look, and we both decided right then and there to make sure we saved some of our money the next week so we could sample other things. Still, we looked around, familiarizing ourselves with the layout of the place, as we had little else to do.
In the place of a few weeks, we’d gone from having nothing to do but survive the day to having spare time. For the first time in our lives, we truly experienced what it was to have idle time. Later, we retreated to our den to sleep, smelling that wondrous meat on each other’s breath. Dog licked my face and tried to do the same to my hands once or twice, but I rolled over, refusing to let him steal that savory smell from my fingers.
The next time we went back to the meat seller, we returned with more composure. We stood in line like normal customers, salivating a bit less than before, and I even managed to speak when it was my turn. “Meat for two.” I nodded toward Dog to indicate he’d get a portion.
The sweaty, bearded man recognized us and held out his hand for payment. This time, I carefully pulled a few coins from my cord. When shook his fingers to indicate a couple more, I reluctantly surrendered two more, keeping a few more myself. He eyed us and smiled.
Once again, we found ourselves in a meat-caused state of bliss. Sighing contentedly, I grinned and decided to offer my thanks to the cook, as Barid and Adish had explained was polite.
“This is most tasty rat.” I declared, nodding and smiling broadly.
The line of customers all turned to look at me. They began whispering amongst themselves and several made noises of disgust and walked away. Had I said something wrong?
The man’s dark face went bright red. Stuttering and lost for words after my compliment, he finally managed to shout, “What are you saying, you miscreant? How dare you? This is the finest goat in the Lower Market!”
I laughed. I’d eaten rat a thousand times, and I knew its taste well, hidden with delicious spices or not. “I shall be back next week!” Dog barked in agreement.
“Get out of here! Go!” The other words that followed had no meaning to me, but they sounded quite emphatic.
“Delicious rat!” I shouted happily, walking away, wondering how he’d learned my name already.
For years Dog and I lived on the streets, but life was not as it had been. We grew craftier, smarter, and more human. We’d realized that we needed to grow, not only in size and stature, but in knowledge. Nokomi had taught us that, whether she’d meant to or not.
Many hours were spent listening to the folk of the markets and city, learning their tongues. It was very confusing at first, and it came as something of a breakthrough one day when we realized that these peoples were as different from each other as birds and elephants, so they spoke different languages. How odd it was to think of all these people knowing so many sounds, but still be unable to converse. It was an enlightening and despairing day that led me to nearly give up on ever speaking.
Then we received a job one day. A metalworker’s assistant had gone home sick, and he’d struggled to work both the bellows and the metal, and he’d seen me watching him. I loved the sparks and fire. Dog and I found the little fireflies of light that danced around his falling hammers to be hypnotizing. A few gruff syllables later and a lot of gesturing, I found myself invited in to work the bellows.
Warily, I began to work the bellows, earning an education beside this man named Adish. He instructed me, first with gestures, and later with words that I learned to be commands. Dog watched with great amusement at first when I overworked the bellows, working up a great heat as a tired myself out. Eventually, I learned to get it just right, and with it, I understood the value of words.
Now Dog and I were not working for charity, mind you. After a day’s work, Adish offered us a few shiny pieces of metal. When we had little use for them, he offered us food and drink. Those we took, eagerly. He didn’t seem surprised when we showed up the next day, looking for the same arrangement. His assistant was back, but he had the boy show us what needed being done, and we learned more of their sounds.
After a few days in a row, Dog and I always expected Adish to be there with his food. Strangely, one day he was not. Our stomachs rumbled and grumbled that day. Upset at our fortune, we set about the market and rustled up some food from some unsuspecting smoked meat sellers.
We’d given up on Adish, but it didn’t sit well with us. We passed his way a few days later, only to find him hard at work again. It was confusing, but we were welcomed in again, and his food was as delicious as ever, if strangely flavored.
It was thus that we learned of weeks and numbers. Barid, the boy who worked for Adish, taught us the way to count with fingers, and the names of the eight days. We came to understand that of the eight days, there were two on which there was no work to be done.
This became our routine, Dog and I would visit Adish’s shop to learn words and metalworking on six days out of eight, and we would wander the Bazaar and the Lower Market the other two. We never went hungry, and, in fact, we both grew quite strong and healthy for the first time in our lives. Barid even gave me some of his clothes, ones that were too small for him, as he was a few years ahead of me, as he told it, but I was quickly gaining on him in size and I suspected I’d already surpassed him in strength.
And there was one more lesson we learned for Adish and Barid, that being the meaning of those curious rounds of metal that jingled in people’s pockets. For us, they unlocked the secrets of money. As our worth to the man grew, we began getting paid not only in food, but also in coins.
It was with those coins that we went into the market one day, one of the two days that Adish did not work. It was those coins that brought us once more into Nokomi’s presence.
My first memories are smells, sounds, and tastes. I remember these as flashes, like dog dreams. They blend together in a constant stream of what made up my early life: nibbles of castoff meat, a crust of bread, a short nap in the warm sun, the sharp tartness of pomegranate not quite yet ripe, the taste of blood running from my split lip to my tongue, the sting of rocks, a howl, warm fur, and dark eyes.
Odors that I found normal, others may find repulsive, but they were an ever-present element of my early life. They were the scents of too many people crammed into too small an area, a competing maelstrom of odors coming from food, industry, and waste. The spicy smells of roasting meats drifted down from the markets and cafes.
I lived in a warren of streets, a virtual maze between brick and mud buildings that towered far above my small head. Dark stains streaked the walls and the alley between them. Brick, clay, and mud buildings had been thrown together haphazardly, with little planning for expansion. They melded together, the next one using the previous one’s walls to start. Most were two or three stories tall, and a network of walkways, awnings, overhangs, and clotheslines obscured sight of the sky from the ground level.
These narrow alleyways were teeming with life, mostly of the unwanted and disposable sort. Rats navigated these narrows with ease, along with other scavengers and children as well. Children, unwanted or unaffordable, were left to the streets to fend for themselves. Clothed in rags if they were lucky, the children were overlooked and forgotten unless they offended you with their begging or got in the way of your caravanning wagons and animals. Then, anger, fists, and sticks might be brought against them.
The street children were a rabid, sorry lot. They fought like animals over moldy crusts of bread. The weak ones died quickly of illness, but this may have been a mercy. The slow ones were caught or trapped to be taken away like vermin. The prettiest of them were taken to be servants in rich houses, used as free slaves, or worse. The fastest of their kind made their way into the circles of cutpurses and thieves. They made good lookouts for the criminal sort that stalked the city, or they worked as flash looters, overwhelming market stalls with their sheer numbers.
It was a dangerous way to live. You never knew when a truncheon would fall upon your head or maim you. No one cared. You were one of the unclaimed. You were better off struck dead than maimed. Maimed, you were a target. I could always gauge the remaining life of a wounded one by the severity of the infirmity. You could measure life in hours or days, like sand running through clenched fingers.
I was not one of them, though. No, I was part of my own pack. Dog and I were a pack. A cast-out like me, he’d once lived in the scrublands that surrounded the city. As a pup, he’d been captured, likely to serve as an oddity for the fighting pits, cheered along as some savage beast mauled him to death. He’d escaped his cage and that horrible fate, and somehow we’d found each other. I don’t remember how. I don’t remember the time before him. I don’t remember the feeling of not having him beside me, but I do remember knowing him when we met.
I was barely old enough to walk, a sorrowful creature destined to die in days. Then I’d met Dog. From that moment on, we were as one. We were a team.
Dog had large, round ears that twitched at every noise. Easy to spook and always on guard, he was impossible to surprise. His muzzle was short and stubby, and his nose rough, black as the rest of his face. His dark head looked oversized for his thin frame, but his thin legs and narrow body were surprisingly fast and nimble. His fur was spotted and mottled, part black, part tawny brown. I loved him at once.
He was mine. I was his. It was the two of us, hunting, watching over each other, and sleeping in a tangle of limbs in whatever den we could make. We were living. We shared the food we hunted, working as a team to confuse vendors, to sneak scraps from kitchens, and to lift food from passing wagons. Above all, we kept each other safe.
There were always bigger kids out there waiting to pick on you, to steal from you or hurt you if you weren’t careful. They’d kill you just to spite you. They hated anyone surviving when they struggled, and it made all of us a little cruel, but some of us it made very cruel. I didn’t blame them, but you learned to avoid those ones, like you stayed away from a sick and dangerous animal. You could see it in their eyes, their jittery movements, and the way they smelled. We could smell the hate on them.
It was only the two of us, until that day when everything changed.
On that day, our pack became three.
We, who had lived and been whole as two, learned what it was to grow our pack. Was it an accident or fate? I didn’t know the difference. I still don’t. I just know that I knew her just as I had known Dog. She was to be ours, and we were to be hers.
Our eyes met.
Mine were wary hazel eyes, brown around the center and green toward the edges. I knew this because I’d seen my reflection in rain puddles when they gathered on the street near our den.
Hers were a warm brown, reddish and coffee-colored. There was something in them that reflected a feeling I felt within. This feeling was in both of our eyes. Was it defiance?
Her gaze looked past the dirty clothes, the stain of pomegranate that dribbled down my chin, and my unwashed face. She took in the sight of Dog and I sharing food and grinned.
We gazed upon her fine linen clothes, the brightest white I’d ever beheld with my eyes. They were stained around them hems from where she ran barefoot, sullying them with the grime of the alleys as she ran. Her dark hair was a stark contrast to the light color of her clothes, and her skin was shades darker than my own, but we still shared that expression, whatever it might have been.
She casually strode over to us. Dog’s teeth flashed for a moment, but it was all for show. He sensed something kindred in her, and, though his hackles rose, we all knew that he would not bite her. I flashed my teeth as well and kept my body low and tense, but I let her pluck the pomegranate from my hands anyway.
Seeing that we had been worrying at the thick rind with our teeth, she deftly opened it up, using a small knife she produced from the belt around her waist. Her lips curled into a smile as she made it open like a flower blossom. She took a nibble as a tribute for her efforts, and handed back the rest.
We gobbled it down, seeds and all, slurping at every last drop of the violet-red juices. Hands and face stained with it, we looked to this newcomer.
“I’m Nokomi.” She offered, her voice musical and lilting. I savored the sounds she made. I whispered an approximation of her name. Dog’s ears pricked forward.
“What’s your name?” She asked, inclining her head at the two of us expectantly.
I knew few words, but the ones I knew didn’t work for this situation. I’d learned words from the other boys in the alleys. I’d learned the names of items I pilfered in the market from listening to the merchants, hawkers, and craftsmen. I’d practiced making their sounds, much like the birds in the Bazaar could emulate people noises. Dog always smiled his toothy grin at me whenever I spoke like people.
“Dog.” I uttered, pointing at my companion.
She broke into a laugh, her small white teeth shining in the dim alley light. “I know that’s a dog. He’s a strange one, but he’s a dog for certain. What is his name?”
I cocked my head at her. Dog echoed my response.
“You mean he doesn’t have a name? What about you? What is your name?” She pointed at me.
I thought for a moment, trying to summon a name for myself. What was it the folk of the market called me? They raised their arms and shouted this name at me: “Go.” I grunted the name at her as I hit my hands on my chest, claiming it as mine.
Her eyebrows raised and her eyes widened. “Your name is Go?” She shook her head disapprovingly, but I knew not how to reply. “Dog and Go.”
“I can’t very well call you those names.” She looked us over, as if she’d not noticed before exactly how scruffy and dirty the pair of us was. “Go… Goren?”
“Goren?” I repeated, shaking my head. That was not my name.
As if this were acceptance of my new name, she turned her eyes to Dog. She tilted her head and looked him over, eyeing his mottled coloring of tan, black, and white. “I don’t know what to call your dog. ‘Dog’ seems to work... for now.”
That decided, she settled down beside us as if we were old friends. It’s a gift of some children, to walk into a new place with new faces and just act as if it was the most natural thing in the world to be there among them. In this case, this pristine girl from someplace else sat down with a pair of street creatures as if she were sitting beside long lost friends to catch up on the gossip.
Nokomi began to speak then. We knew little of what she said, but the whole pomegranate situation had earned her our ears at least, so we settled in for a good listen. With our backs to the rough wall, we heard her out. Dog even placed his head on her lap, his tongue licking contentedly at the juice still on his lips and his ears twitching in time with her syllables.
I don’t know how long this went on. I just knew in that moment that I didn’t want it to stop. How I longed to speak to her! I wanted to know what she spoke of and contribute to this conversation. Dog and I communicated to go about daily tasks, but it was more in a sense of feelings and senses. We shared a connection that made words, other than occasional grunts, barks, and yips unnecessary.
Instead, we watched her speak, her words punctuated with laughs and expressions that we enjoyed examining. Dog and I watched every move of her lips, the way her chest and throat rose when she was particularly emphatic about one thing or another. She was a very animated speaker, and I understood no more than a word in ten, if that. We could have listened for days, but we weren’t given that sort of time. Too soon, it came to an end.
Dog’s ears swiveled toward the end of our alley facing in the direction of the market. He rose off of Nokomi’s lap and emitted a low growl. I froze, because I knew what that particular growl meant: danger.
I swiftly rose from my sitting position and drew a sharp sliver of metal I’d found weeks back, a scrap from a metalworker’s shop. It was my claw. I didn’t have the teeth that Dog had, so I had to make do with such things, and this was the best claw I’d ever managed to acquire. While I expected a pack of street boys, the distant cries from the market that I’d heard, but hadn’t registered because of Nokomi’s story, should have alerted me to the fact that this was no mere pack of street boys.
No, street boys we could have shouted off and stood up to. Most of them in this area knew Dog and I well enough now to know we were not to be trifled with. Only the truly stupid or crazed would attack us in the open like this, and those we knew to hide from. We had several dens hidden in this area that we could retreat to, if needed. No, this was something altogether different.
Slinking out of the shadows came a tan cat with tufted ears and a compact body. Of a size with Dog, it was likely an even match for him, if not more dangerous. It arched its back and spat at us. Noises from back the way it’d come seemed to indicate that it was being pursued, and now we stood between it and possible freedom.
If only that alley had been wider, we might have let the cat pass without issue, but its nervousness and need to flee were greater than its sense of caution, so it charged in to challenge us, rearing up on its back paws with claws and fangs bared.
Dog darted in, going for a thigh, while I put myself between Nokomi and the cat, waiting for an opening. Nokomi shouted something, but I didn’t understand. I only knew to protect her and Dog, and that meant attacking. I saw my chance and went for it.
Blood and fur and skin tore as the three of us tangled. The cat was a killer, one naturally prone to going after the neck, so Dog and I made sure to never give the cat a chance to find either of ours. My claw found an opening in the cat’s guts, right below the ribs. Dog ripped at the cat from the side, and we brought the cat to the ground. Sharp claws tore at our flesh as our teeth and claws went after the cat’s end. I tore and bit at it every bit as viciously as Dog, completely lost in the fight.
Nokomi screamed when we finally backed away from the beast, as it breathed its last. Blood dripped from gashes on my arms and a tear of skin on my forehead, but I grinned anyway, spitting fur from my mouth. Dog had raw patches of skin torn from his muzzle and along his ribs, which he immediately took to licking, whimpering as he did so. The flesh would scab in days, but the fur would take longer to grow back.
Aghast, Nokomi looked nearly as pale as me. She tore a sleeve from her clothes and began dabbing at the blood that threatened to obscure the vision in my left eye. As she attempted to treat my wounds, I noticed an acrid smell, like snuffed coals, and it was then that I realized that she, too, was bleeding.
The palm of her hand was cut, how or by what, I did not know. I only knew that the blood of her palm mingled with that of my torn forehead, burning its way into my scalp. Fire spread beneath my skin, tingling through the network of capillaries in the skin until my whole scalp felt alive. The feeling spread through my face and down to my neck, racing down to my heart, and when that first pump of mingled blood reached my chest, I felt Nokomi swoon before me.
We clutched at each other, marveling at the strange feeling that surrounded us. She and I and Dog could have been the only living creatures in the world. I felt her. She felt me. It was different from what I had with dog, different and in some ways surpassing the connection I had with him. I could not feel with her senses, as I could with him, but rather her emotions.
In that moment, lost in each other’s feelings and eyes, we did not notice the man standing at the end of the alley until he shouted, and even then he had to shout three times before it broke us from our stupor.
“Nokomi! Step away from that boy!”
Darkly tanned, with a black beard that came to a point at his chin, the face that stared back at me could only have been her father. He looked so much like her, but hard like steel, where she was like water. His figure was imposingly tall, made taller by a conical head wrap that bore feathers. His broad shoulders he seemed to fill the whole alley. The curved sword on his belt sang free from its scabbard and he snarled.
This time, it was Nokomi’s turn to save us. She put herself between her angry father and the two of us, both still dazed from our wounds and what had just happened between she and I.
An argument ensued, but I did not understand it all. What I did understand was that the man was angry, and the others with him looked an awful lot like a more dangerous version of the market guard. I wanted nothing to do with them. Then, there was the other man that stood amongst them, he was perhaps most frightening of all.
The other man wore a heavy collar and dark robes. With the turban he wore and a dark, thick beard, he left little of his face exposed beyond yellow eyes and a blunt nose. He was an ugly man for certain, but the beast beside him was a fearsome dog, perhaps a bit old, but a battle-scarred mastiff the size of which I’d never seen before.
I knew from the moment our eyes met that he was like us, like Dog and I, and I knew I had to run. I knew what that collar around his neck meant. I’d been through the Bazaar enough times to see animals with their masters. That was not what I wanted. Collared, it would never be just Dog and I again, so we fled.
It felt like tearing off my own limb to separate from Nokomi, but we did it. Dog and I fled do the alley, stumbling at first and then running all out. Shouting followed us, Nokomi’s stricken shrieks mingling with her father’s barking of orders. We fled swiftly, because, injured or not, we knew our lives depended on it.
We hid in one of our dens, a small alcove unintentionally left unfilled when two buildings had been built up together. Weather and crumbling and a poorly-driven carriage had broken it away just enough for the two of us to enter the space that existed between two walls of the buildings. We backfilled the entrance with crumbled rock from within and sat in darkness, clutching each other and licking our wounds.
Footsteps came and went, Dog’s ears twitching with each close pass. Only once did it seem as if we had been found. We heard a dog and its partner’s footfalls near our hiding place, but they receded just when it seemed as if we might be sniffed out.
For the moment, we were safe, but our lives would be forever changed. I’d been given a name. Dog and I had grown our pack, and then we’d lost Nokomi. Things couldn’t stay the same.