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.
National Novel Writing Month 2019: The Emperor's Dogs