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