I spent the next few hours meeting with the contingent of the Emperor’s Dogs that had arrived and were stationed within the palace. Aside from Legs, I’d found a few familiar faces from the old days, such as Scar, who still had a torn corner of his mouth, and Bull, who had been one of my first friends and companions. The years had aged them all, but they’d grown stronger and more dependable with their experience.
I had arranged for each of them to take a member of the royal family to guard. Scar would guard the Empress, since he was the most vicious and capable of the three of them. Bull was a stalwart friend and warrior, but he was calmer and more suited to guarding someone like Neema, who would not have appreciated Scar’s rough appearance or his aggressive dog. That left Legs to run messages and coordinate with other cells of the Emperor’s Dogs I’d stationed throughout the palace, so that I could watch over Nokomi personally. There was not a one among these three that I would not trust with my life, but Nokomi’s life was another thing.
I was in council with the four of them when I heard the Emperor’s entourage had set out. I frowned at the abrupt nature of the departure. It was a market day, so that meant many extra faces spread throughout the palace grounds, many of which I did not recognize. I growled and headed for the gates, my old companions flanking me.
We formed an impressive knot of aggression that none would challenge. Servants, officials, guards, and folks of all manner made way for us, like prey vanishing before the approach of a lion. If their ears had perked or if they’d sprouted tails to flash warning to one another, I’d likely not have been surprised.
I led the way toward the gates, halting when I saw the Emperor’s party arrive at the gates, where they were greeted. It was a small party indeed, perhaps a score in all, with Teeth flanking the group of mounted men, even though his presence was spooking more than one of the horses. Emperor Baraz was outfitted for travel, not for comfort. He traveled only with those he needed and would likely pick up a larger escort of soldiers at a camp outside the city. Knowing him, he’d have already prepared a handpicked troop loyal only to him.
“He rides light.” Scar muttered through his ruined mouth. He’d practiced for years and was much more understandable these days, although his eating was still horribly messy.
Dog made an unhappy noise, and I shook my head. “I warned them about this.”
“Kalb is with them. He’s like a war elephant on his own.” Legs commented blithely. “What could go wrong?”
We all looked at him, and he shrunk under our collective disdain. I loved the guy, but a messenger like him didn’t always understand the greater picture when it came to pitched battles. Numbers mattered.
The Emperor’s party exited through the main gates, saluted by the officer at the gate and his company of troops. Several accompanied the Emperor’s troop, trotting alongside them with halberds held high. It was a position of honor, one the Emperor bore patiently, seeing as how he wanted speed, not ceremony. That was why he’d chosen such a small group, one without an honor guard.
The gates closed slowly behind them, and the junior officer on duty looked truly happy with himself. I doubted he often got to see the Emperor in person, let alone bid him a fair journey.
It was the last watch of the afternoon, and so it was not a likely time to leave. Most would have chosen to leave in the morning, to put the most distance behind them by starting off early. The Emperor must have chosen a close location to stop over, unless he planned on riding through the night. Either way, he was being unpredictable, and that would make it hard for Navid to attack him.
“Let’s get to our stations.” I suggested. There was little to be gained by watching guards stand about the gates, and I wanted to be as near to Nokomi as I could now that her father had left. “We have duties to be about, important people to protect.”
Scar and Bull saluted me, while Legs stared off in the direction the Emperor had gone. A puzzled look spread across his face.
“Legs?” I asked.
Legs lifted his hand and nodded in the Emperor’s direction. “Is that a man on the roof?”
I turned, following his pointed finger toward a tall estate just a couple rows of property beyond the gates. Sure enough, I saw someone crawling out on the tiled roof. He was not on the balcony, but on the actual roof. That shadow pulled up into a crouch, drawing a bow.
“They’re not even waiting until they get out of the city to attack!” I stared in surprise.
“How did they know?” Scar asked.
I shook my head. It didn’t matter. “To the Emperor!” I shouted, tensing. “Make for the gates!”
I broke into a run, Dog throwing everything he had into it as he charged alongside me. As I did, I noticed more shadowy figures appearing on other rooftops beyond the gates. They’d rip the Emperor apart in the crossfire.
“Move! Move!” I screamed at my companions, and all eight of us, four men and four dogs ran for the gates.
The junior officer who had just bid the Emperor farewell turned to stare at us, a stunned look on his face as I shouted for him to throw the gates open. His helmet plume bobbed lamely in the breeze, and his men hesitated, waiting for an order to do as told or to draw steel and prevent us from following the Emperor.
“What goes on here?” The officer demanded, trying to look full of command, but he lacked the presence.
From beyond the gates, I could hear shouts, the clanging of weapons, and the firing of arrows. We were running out of time.
I let my face go wild, fangs, eyes, and all. Then I growled at the man, “The Emperor is under attack! Now open the gates, or I’ll rip you to pieces!”
The officer went pale, and his chin began to tremble. “What?” He looked to the walls, where soldiers were starting to point in confusion. He frowned and looked back at me.
I’d struck him dumb with fear. Growling, I shoved the man aside. He tumbled backward into the guard shack. A few blades rang free of their scabbards. Dogs around me began to growl, baring teeth, their own version of blades.
“Open the gates! Your Emperor is under attack!” I snarled at the men.
More shouts and the echoes of battle came from outside the gates. One of the watchtowers to the southern side of the gates began to ring a bell. Moments later, others took up the ring. Soon, the whole palace was alive with the ringing of warning bells and the noise of soldiers coming ready to fight.
Except, there was fighting within the walls, too, I realized. Bull looked back the way we’d come, where chaos had broken out. “The market is under attack.”
The officer suddenly realized what was happening, and his simple training took over. “The gates!” He shouted. “Secure the gates!”
At that, men actually jumped into action, closing us off from the Emperor’s rescue. They were trying to protect the palace, which was what they’d been trained to do. The problem was, the Emperor was being attacked outside, and there were insurgents within the walls attacking as well.
I cursed and turned to my companions. “Hold off these fools and get the gates open. Once they’re open, keep them that way. The Emperor may have to retreat this way.”
“Where are you going?” Legs asked, drawing his sword.
“I’m going for the Emperor. Even someone like Kalb is going to need help.” I grinned at Legs.
“All or nothing.” Bull offered a bark.
“All or nothing.” I echoed back.
Dog and I made for the walkways that led to the top of the gates. Soldiers tried to bar the way, but with the beast taking over my arms, legs, and reflexes, they had no hope to do so. It would take more than swords or spears to stop Dog and I.
Soldiers tumbled out of our way as we charged up the wooden stairs. The first two I threw off the stairs, sending them tumbling into a heap on the ground below. Th next one I threw backward into the another and trampled them both beneath our feet and paws. Laughing, we cleared our way to the landing with a powerful leap.
Atop the wall, other guards moved to hedge us in, but they didn’t realize that we weren’t going to walk down the walls – we were going over them. I paused only long enough to take stock of what was going on out in the streets.
A dozen archers had pinned down the Emperor’s small force with arrows, while ground forces had swarmed from the alleys and estates. Navid’s soldiers, I realized. He’d grown so brazen that he hadn’t even bothered to hide the fact that it was him. I couldn’t believe it, even if it’d always been what I’d suspected. All or nothing indeed!
The Emperor’s small cadre of men had drawn swords and small buckler shields. They had ringed themselves around the Emperor, but they were vastly outnumbered. Horses and men were already down in the street, dead from the initial flights of arrows and spear attacks. In the middle of a knot of fighting, I saw Kalb standing beside the Emperor, roaring in a fully glorious version of himself that was closer to animal than man. At his side, Teeth had an arrow sprouting from his side, but he was mauling a man to death as if his wound was nothing consequential.
I threw myself from the top of the wall then, trusting my companions to get the gates back open soon. Three of them were easily a match for twenty confused guards. When I hit the ground, I rose quickly and hunched my shoulders to make a landing surface of my back. Dog’s toenails scratched deep as he landed on me, vaulted over me, and kept running as if the drop were nothing. He bolted ahead, heading for where the Emperor fought for his life. I let my nature take over, and surged forward with him.
I saw the last of the honor guard of gate men fall as I arrived at the fight. I threw myself headlong into battle, needing no sword or weapon when I had my claws and teeth. Like a hammer, we struck the attackers, sending men to the ground battered and torn. The screams of horses and animals filled the streets, music to my savage ears.
Dog worked over the lower halves of men, tearing at femoral arteries and hamstringing foes so I could rip their throats out or gash out their eyes. Roaring deeply, I found myself battling near Kalb and the Emperor, who were rapidly losing human shields.
Another volley of arrows fell upon us. Kalb took one in the shoulder, and the Emperor cursed. I saw that he’d taken one in the leg. He staggered, taking a man in the neck with his sword as he struggled to remain on two feet. His horse was dead beneath him, probably several minutes ago.
The Emperor’s hand went to his leg, coming back dark with blood. He made a fist with his bloodied hand and punched it toward the nearest knot of enemies. A gout of flame erupted from him, engulfing the traitorous soldiers.
Dog snarled at my side, taking the neck of an enemy that had gotten too close while I’d been distracted by the Emperor’s blood magic. I felt a cut across my chest. Another of Navid’s soldiers had just scored my flesh with a spear tip. I snapped the shaft of the spear with a swipe of my claw. Then I drove my foot into his armored chest, shattering his bones beneath it. He was dead before he hit the ground.
Another wave of soldiers poured down the street, moving to overwhelm us.
“There are too many!” I shouted. “Get the Emperor back within the walls!”
Kalb rounded on me, blood dripping down his face from a scalp wound. “Navid will have taken the palace, too, Go. There is no way we’re getting back in the gates. We’re going to be surrounded!”
I shook my head. “My men are getting those gates open.”
A light of hope entered Kalb’s eyes, and he nodded toward the Emperor. “Take him. I’ll hold them off.”
“We go together, or not at all.” The Emperor interjected, gathering a pool of his own blood into the palms of his hands. He eyed me. “Aren’t you supposed to be guarding my family, Captain?”
“You’re the head of the family, Sir, so I am guarding your family at this very moment.” I grinned at the Emperor, killing another enemy as I made light of disobeying his orders.
The Emperor laughed, gathered his focus into his bloody hands, where his blood seemed to coagulate at his will. He mashed his two hands together to create a single mass, which he cast in the direction of the largest concentration of enemies, and we ran. Or, at least we tried to, with me helping the wounded Emperor along.
The explosion that followed that tarry, black blood was deafening. To one of as sharp of senses as I was, it was staggering. Everything went white, and I felt something sting my shoulder. I tumbled to the ground, covering the Emperor’s body with my own.
“Captain!” A voice grunted from under me.
I climbed off of the Emperor and helped him back to his feet. I shook my head, but my ears were still ringing. Smoke drifted across my vision, but I could see that the gates were open. Legs was running to us, while Scar and Bull were holding the gates with their dogs, fending off a number of soldiers with increasing difficulty.
It was then that I noticed I’d been hit with an arrow. It had gone straight through my forearm. I frowned at it, bit through the feathered end of it, and pulled the remainder out the other side.
Dog whimpered at my side, shaking his head. He walked unevenly, clearly dazed by the noise of the last explosion, but we still headed toward the gates. Kalb limped alongside us, with half a dozen wounded soldiers, all that remained of the Emperor’s guard.
I cast a glance back to see several score of enemies still coming our way. There were too many left, even after the wreckage that had been made of their force by the Emperor’s bomb. They ran around the mangled pile of bodies and the cries of burned and broken men.
From the rooftops, another volley of arrows coming our way.
“Arrows!” I shouted, probably louder than I could tell. My ears still rang.
The Emperor turned around. With a spray of blood falling from his bloodied wrist, he cast an arc of fire out to scorch many of the arrows to ashes, but more still came, and he could not stop them all. The soldiers threw themselves in the way of the arrows, taking their deaths instead of allowing their leader to fall.
Legs skidded to a halt beside us, his eyes glowing. He let loose a howl that caused some of the approaching soldiers to falter in their advance.
“Take the Emperor, Legs. Carry him back to the walls!” I ordered.
Legs nodded, hoisting the protesting Emperor upon his shoulder as one might a sack of flour. He bolted back for the safety of the walls then. I laughed to see it. Long-legged and fleet of foot, he was the fastest man I’d ever known, and his floppy-eared dog ran like the wind before him.
“Kalb! Move!” Everything had been reduced to shouts and screams in the din of battle, one-sided or not.
Kalb nodded, stumbling toward the wall. Teeth lagged beside him, his wounds finally slowing him. He’d taken a second arrow at some point. It protruded from his rear left leg, and he limped at half speed, if that. Kalb, fully engaged in his animal’s pain, limped on the left as well.
Dog looked at me, and I knew what he was thinking. Those two wouldn’t make it to the wall, not with so many soldiers closing in. And where were the reinforcements? The palace warning bells were still ringing. My ears did not betray me. I could hear them clanging away, but where were was the palace guard? Where were our reinforcements? Had they all been tied up with the forces inside the walls, or was Navid marshalling his strength within the walls, withholding any assistance for the Emperor.
I snarled and leapt forward, wishing I had the strength to carry both Kalb and his beast. I knew that neither of them would let me take the other. Live or die, they’d do it together.
When the safety of the walls looked to be within our grasp, that’s when Navid’s hammer fell. His wolves fell upon us. Legs didn’t have a chance. The Emperor’s Dogs were raised to be a pack of beasts masquerading as men. We were powerful, but disciplined. A dog pack was much like an army, with ranks and order.
Navid’s Wolves were the opposite. They were a snarling, rabid pack of beasts, all fury and violence without restraint. Three of them burst from the top of the walls without warning. They went right at the Emperor’s rescuer, hitting Legs like cannonballs.
Legs’ ribs were crushed as they hit him, and the Emperor was thrown like a ragdoll upon the cobbled road that led to the gates. Leg’s dog howled in agony when his master went down in a sickening twist of limbs. Navid’s wolves set upon my broken friend and his dog, tearing them to pieces.
I howled in anger, but had no chance to avenge him, for two more of the Navid’s foul creatures burst from the army behind me. They were coming for me, so I let myself go. There was no reason for the human reasoning within me to remain. I needed all of my anger and strength for vengeance.
The corners of my mouth tore as my jaw elongated, making way for savage teeth and wicked fangs. I was not so much dog as I was beast. My muscles rippled and reworked themselves into weapons. My legs felt like catapults, drawn back and ready to spring. I’d never gone so far from my humanity before, but this was not a time for half measures.
I cleared ten paces with a single leap, carrying me into the surprised, red-eyed beast that Navid’s training had fashioned of this boy. I drove my fist through his chest. Dog caught up to me a moment later, seizing the man’s stunned beast in his jaws and ending it with his bone-crushing teeth.
Another of Navid’s foul creations sought to take my life from behind, but I was far faster than he bargained for. I gutted him with claws as long as daggers and left him crying on his entrails. His dog bit me once before I broke its back with an elbow driven down into its spine. It shuddered and died badly.
Navid’s army tried to close around me, but I quickly showed them how foolish that was. I shredded metal and flesh alike with my claws. When I could, I took their weapons, casting them with deadly accuracy at any of the bowmen who tried to line up a shot at me from what they believed to be the safety of the rooftops. How wrong they were. They fell like sparrows struck with sling stones, breaking on the ground when they hit.
Still they came, and I was vaguely aware of the screams of my allies, but I was unable to bring myself back enough to care. I was fully into my bloodlust, and I was letting the ground drink deeply of enemy blood.
I am sure that I took wounds, but in that state, I could not feel them. The ground grew slick with blood and gore, but there was no end to the death I dealt.
I battled on, killing with claws and teeth and sword alike. Dog was a wind of death beside me, and I’m afraid I did not recognize friend or foe until I heard my name.
“Go!” A voice screamed.
I rounded on this new enemy, only then realizing it was the Emperor calling my name. He’d lost his helmet, blood obscured half of his face, and he was covered with dust and blood. His sword was the only thing keeping his body upright; he used it as a walking stick. Even in his obvious pain he could not hide how terrifying he found my appearance.
“We are lost, Go.” He choked out the words, struggling to breathe.
I looked down, smelling and sensing mortal wounds. The Emperor had lost too much blood. Not far away, Kalb lay on the ground, his face torn and his breath making bubbles in his blood.
“Kalb.” I tried to say, but my mouth could not make words any longer, not human ones anyway. I howled instead.
“Save my family.” The Emperor begged me, clasping weakly at the front of my torn uniform.
I nodded, wishing I could say something profound, but I had nothing. Words could not express what I felt.
He pushed away from me, heading for the largest concentration of the enemy. They gathered around him, hedging in the Emperor with spear tips and ready blades. I knew what he was going to do, so I ran then, killing another of Navid’s wolves on the way.
I gathered Scar to me. He was injured, but he was the only one left of my friends. Bull had been killed holding the gates. I would have mourned my friend, but I had no time. I had to get to Nokomi before Navid’s men did, and I feared too much time had already been wasted.
I paused only once, looking back at the Emperor as he fell. I thought I saw a smile on his face as a soldier rammed a sword through his chest. He cried out as he died, Anahita’s name, I think. Even in death, he was not finished.
I quickly turned my eyes as a flash of white erupted from the Emperor’s body, growing like a fountain of fire that crumpled buildings and erased people in its wake. The explosion rocked the entire palace.
I used the confusion to get to the woman I loved.
The nine of us gathered around: the leaders of Yek, Se, Do, and Chahar with all five members of Panj, even if Tiny was in a fitful sleep. Many of the other members of the packs gathered in the hallway to hear. They huddled together quietly to listen, reminding me of a crowd watching a game of stones, only much quieter.
We all looked to the nondescript boy from Yek with a bit of surprise, since they never did much alone. For some reason, he’d been chosen to represent Pack Yek. He introduced himself as Sardar, which was also a surprise. It sounded like a birth name, while we all had nicknames. Most of us shared the nicknames with our dogs, while some of us, like myself, also had names for our dogs. The first pack was different in many ways, but they had been here much longer than any of us.
“We all know why we’re here.” I began. I’d brought all this about, so they would look to me to lead the discussion. “We must decide a fate for Drum and his dog, Bear. Whatever we decide, we must decide together, so that the Emperor and his advisor, who you know as Yellow-Eyes, will agree.”
“You already have a decision made? You’ve decided amongst your pack?” Scar inquired. He spoke slowly, enunciating carefully. With the scars around his mouth, it was difficult for him to speak quickly.
I looked to my fellows, and they nodded to me. I grasped Tiny’s hand as he slept. “Yes. We will demand that Drum is executed for killing our pack member’s dog.”
Scar’s mouth twisted in a wry smile. “I do not like him. I never have. He was insufferable even before you came here. Then you all pushed him to a point where he had no choice. Now he gets to die for it.”
“So you are against us getting our vengeance for L.D.’s murder?” Killer demanded hotly. His body tensed angrily. His dog lifted its head, flashing its large canines.
Scar shook his head and laughed. “No. If he must die, then he must die. I only wanted to lay the blame where it needed to be. You all are not innocent in this, so think upon that before you easily decide to execute someone.”
Legs stood up and pointed a finger at the others. He ignored Scar’s dog baring teeth at his accusing finger. He had something he had to say. “Maybe you all shouldn’t have created such a hostile culture. You had months and years to make this place what you would, and you want to blame us? We’re the victims here. You all created him.”
This incident had certainly given Legs something of a spine. Weeks ago, he’d not have looked any of these boys in the eyes. Now he was berating the whole group. I let him say his piece and kept my expression neutral.
Bull nodded, looking abashed. “It is how they made this place. They demanded that we compete like animals. We could have been building each other up, like brothers. We let this come to this point, and we did nothing to stop it. You are right.”
“So we are all to blame, the instructors, us, and you all.” Scar admitted. Then, almost reluctantly, as if he didn’t know he could trust us, he added, “Even the Emperor is responsible, in his own way.”
“Yes. Let us all share the blame, but Panj will gladly shoulder all of the burden of punishing him.” I declared.
“You will do it yourself?” Sardar asked. The boy with the white dog calmly stroked his dog, as if he were discussing the weather and not the execution of one of our own.
“I will.” I’d already decided this. I owed it to Tiny. I owed it to L.D. Dog was with me on this.
“So it’s decided? Drum is to die? Is there any opposed to murdering one of our own?” Mongrel asked. He certainly had no reason to love Drum. His dog still limped from Bear’s attack. Yet, he still seemed heavy-hearted about the decision.
No one opened their mouth. There were silent headshakes or still expressions, but no one was against it. There were murmurs in the hallway, but no one raised their voice to be heard.
“I have a concern.” Sardar announced. “It is not about Drum. He is mad… brain sick. I do not believe he can be saved. My concern is for his beast. What will you do with Bear? Will you kill him as well?”
No one answered that, not even me. In my mind, Drum was the one who gave the order, but Bear was the one who had murdered L.D. Could we spare the dog that did the deed if we executed the master for ordering the crime?
Sardar smiled sadly. “How will it be for that dog? We may not love Drum, but his dog? Is it Bear’s fault that his master was bred for cruelty?”
“The dog will want to die with his master.” Scar suggested, his dark features doing their best to frown. It was a half-frown at most.
“What can we do with him? Is there any option but putting him down?” I wondered aloud. I was honestly curious.
“I think Scar is right.” Mongrel said. “I felt the pain from my dog, and he was much nearer to death than I’d like to think. He survived, but I know how it would have affected me if he had died. I imagine it is the same way for a dog to lose a master, when you’re one of us.”
“It would be cruel to let him live. He should die with his master.” Scar was adamant about this.
“But what if?” Sardar began.
We all turned to see how that might end. Did he know something we did not?
“Yes?” I prompted, when he didn’t finish that statement.
“Pack Yek has been here longer than any of you, a year longer as a group, but I was the first. I was here before them all.”
Bull looked surprised. This was news to him as well. “You were? How long have you been here?”
“Six years.” Sardar answered.
Silence. We all just looked at each other in wonder. Most of Pack Do, from what little I’d heard before, had only been here a year or two. Pack Yek was supposedly first, but I’d guessed only two to three years at most. Six years was a very long time to be in this place, a lifetime. Dog tensed beside me, as if imagining a lifetime in this place. It was not a pleasant thought.
“It wasn’t always like this.” Sardar explained. “In the beginning, it was only me, and I was treated as a student, a guest even. Then they began to find others. As they did, they built this place up, changing it into this military camp, rather than the school it had once been.”
He paused to pet his dog. “In those early days, it was just me, but they continued to hunt. Yellow-Eyes found more. He brought a girl here and another boy as well.”
“A girl was here?” Scar looked shocked by this idea.
I, too, couldn’t believe it. None of us could. I’d never even heard of a girl with the Old Blood, not that it didn’t make sense. We’d just never seen one. How would that be, though? It was already hard enough with all of us boys, competing and fighting. What would we do if there was a girl to compete for as well? Would she rule us all as we fought for her favor, or would we kill each other to possess her?
Sardar continued his story. “It was just us three for several months, but then there was an accident. Or maybe it wasn’t an accident. No matter the cause, the girl died, leaving her dog behind. The dog was mad with loss. In the manner of beasts, he refused to eat, and was waiting to die.”
“Now I was angry at her death. I blamed the other boy, rightfully so, I believe. In a fit of rage, I attacked him. My dog was killed while I killed the boy.” Sardar looked around at us, letting his story sink in. He flipped over his white dog’s ear, petting the soft, downy fur of the white dog’s ears.
“I felt like I might die. I wanted to, honestly.” Sardar’s faced was shadowed with the painful memories, but that look vanished after a moment, to be replaced with a smile. “This dog also wanted to die, but one day, something changed. I felt the same sort of pain in this dog as I felt inside. We had that pain in common. It was a start. It was what we both needed. We bonded, dog and boy, and we survived.”
We all froze. Never would we have believed that he was on his second dog, that this was a second bond. None of us had even known it was possible. What did that mean for Tiny? Was it possible? The room held their collective breath as we waited for him to continue. Dogs shifted nervously, but the boys remained stone still.
“Without a dog, Tiny will die.” Sardar said definitively. “He will lose the will to survive. Bear will do the same when Drum dies. They could try to bond. Only, I don’t know if they would be a match. I don’t know if they could forgive each other and learn to live together. They may be too different.”
“Or they might be just what each other needs, like with your story.” I offered.
“Maybe.” Sardar smiled softly, rising to his feet. “No matter what, I will support your decision. Pack Yek is behind you completely. But, if you want your friend to survive, I think there is only one possible course of action. It would not be easy, and they would require a long time together, alone and in each other’s company, but they might bond.”
He left without another word, his foster dog at his side. He was living proof that someone could survive losing a dog, but only if there was another one to bond with. Is that would Tiny would want? His hand tightened imperceptibly in mine, as if he’d heard the story and understood. I hoped it was so.
“We are all in agreement then?” I released Tiny’s hand and stood. Dog stood beside me. “Drum is to die. Tiny is to be given a chance to bond with Bear, if they will tolerate the match.”
“Pack Do agrees.” Scar answered quickly.
“Pack Se agrees.” Bull nodded.
“Pack Chahar agrees.” Mongrel said reluctantly. He hated Drum, but he’d known him best. It was hard to say goodbye, but it was what needed to be done.
“Pack Yek’s vote is with me, so we are all in agreement. I will take the news to the Emperor.” I hesitated, knowing this would not be enough. “When this is all done, we need to be done with these packs. They will only cause division. This tragedy could happen again.”
“What do you suggest then?” Scar asked.
“A new pack.” Killer suggested, smiling. He knew where I was going with this, even if I hadn’t discussed it with him.
“I thought you said do away with packs!” Scar protested. He didn’t seem to like the idea of losing his pack, but he had to know that Fire was practically a member of our pack now anyway, reducing his own group to three. That was hardly a pack.
“We are no longer Yek, Do, Se, Chahar, and Panj.” I said the words, smiling at Face, Killer, Legs, and Tiny’s prone form. “From now on, we are all Pack Sefr. We will use the name to honor the sacrifices made today. From now on, all of us are together, or we are nothing.”
“Pack Sefr.” Bull agreed. “All or nothing.”
“Pack Sefr.” Mongrel declared, effectively abdicating from his very short reign as leader of Chahar. He hadn’t really liked ruling anyway.
Scar looked at us all as if we were crazy, shaking his head. “Pack Sefr it is then.”
Bull stood to bark and bow to me. The others quickly did the same. I heard more barks from the hallway. The observers had agreed, including what was left of Pack Yek.
We would kill one of our own in hopes of healing one of our own. Then we would be whole again, as we had never been before.
I snarled and leaped over Tiny, putting myself between Bear and my prone friend. His dog might be dead, but I would not let any more harm come to him. Dog snapped and barked at Bear, who held his head low, drooling and rheumy eyed.
A few of the auburn guards broke decorum first, letting swords fly in the presence of the Emperor as they closed on Bear and Drum. This set off a chain reaction of weapons coming out. The Emperor’s own sword remained sheathed on his hip, but all of his soldiers had their weapons out and had closed around him in just moments. Spears and pairs of swords bristled around the Emperor like a hedgehog.
Our instructors were yelling for calm and trying to get their guards to stand down, but the auburn guards were terrified now, with the Emperor’s guards all showing steel and some of them still standing unarmed. Most of them had reluctantly drawn their weapons as well, but they had not moved from their posts around us. Things were just a misstep or two from becoming a bloodbath.
“Stand down!” The Emperor bellowed. He had a voice that carried commands well. He was a natural leader. I could not smell even a single hint of fear on him, and his soldiers were nearly as good.
While his command might have worked for humans, it put all of the dogs on edge. Already, all of Panj was spoiling for a fight. We were out for blood, and Bull’s Pack Se was ready to follow us. What was left of Chahar stood in shock. Scar was looking around nervously, arms spread in a crouch, huddled beside his black attack dog. He and the rest of Pack Do were ready to fight anyone that came too close. Of all of us, Pack Yek was the only one to remain calm and keep their dogs from barking or scrambling around.
Panj had Drum and Bear half surrounded, backed against a row of auburn guard spears, spears that wavered after being told to stand down. Dogs snarled and barked at each other, dozens of bared teeth flashing and ready for violence.
My muscles bulked up, ready to explode into action, but Kalb barked. His bark was a resounding echo of a noise, all from a deformed mouth that was somewhere between human and canine. He and Teeth parted the Emperor’s guards, and he came to face us, Old Yellow-Eyes.
“Go!” He shouted. “Drum!”
I tilted my head at him. I was still crouched over Tiny’s body, with Little Dog’s still form beside my feet. “This cannot stand, Kalb!” I shouted back at him. “He killed one of ours!”
My neck bristled, and my fingernails ached as the elongated. I could feel my eyes flash yellow back at him. My muscles were tight like a bowstring, ready to release me as a deadly arrow.
Drum laughed. “Go, it is you we cannot stand! You have ruined this place!”
Kalb stepped over to Bear, who snarled and showed his teeth. When Kalb did not back down, but snarled back instead, Bear bowed his head in fear of the superior foe that Kalb presented. “Stand down, Drum. That is the order of your Emperor.”
“What is he to me, beyond a statue? What is he to any of us?” Drum cried. Tears streamed down his face. “He’s a face we are taught to respect… and why? He tore us from our homes. He put us in this cursed place!”
“I did put you here.” The Emperor admitted, parting his guards and coming to stand beside Kalb and Teeth. He stared unflinchingly at the broken boy. “I did all of that. I did it because I have need of you all.”
“What of our needs!” Drum protested. “Have you given a thought to those?”
The Emperor’s hand rested on his sword hilt, but he made no move to draw it. He looked at Kalb beside him, a dog in the general guise of a man, not fully human in appearance or soul. “My needs outweigh yours.”
“Why?” It was a half whine and half screech that left Drum’s angry mouth.
“Because I am the Emperor. I have responsibilities to all of the people in this land. You all will help me carry them out. You will help me make this a better land.”
It wasn’t a practiced speech, but it rang true. Perhaps that was why it rang true. The Emperor truly believed what he said. I could hear it in his voice. We’d all have been able to hear lies if he spoke them. Still, believing him and doing what he required were two very different things.
“But what if there is no place left in this land for us when you are done?”
“Then I have failed in my oath to uphold this land.” The Emperor answered.
“What he’s done cannot be forgiven.” I hissed, ignoring attempts from our instructors to silence me.
At this, our instructors cast apologies at the Emperor, bowing obsequiously, but he was unconcerned with their words. He was entirely focused on Kalb, Drum, and I.
Kalb regarded me coldly with his burning yellow eyes. “The Emperor will decide what can be forgiven and what cannot.”
I shook my head. “There is no place left in here for him. He will never be accepted again.”
“He’s right.” Drum admitted. “I have no place at all. I have no life left. All I have is my anger. My hate. All I could do is share it with them.” Drum tilted his head back at an odd angle, smiling at the sky.
The Emperor watched this exchange with a growing frown. “This is an awful display, Kalb.” His eyes turned to the painful sight of Little Dog’s still body in the sand beside his master. “What a waste of potential. Are these beasts truly here to learn serve me? Can they?”
Bull approached then, holding up his hands to show he was unarmed. “We are not all like him, Emperor. We have order among us. We are pack. I do not want to think that any of us is too far gone, but Drum is sick. He is a mad beast that should be put down. You do not keep sick animals with the healthy ones, or they can all go bad...”
The Emperor’s mouth twisted. He chewed his inner lip as he considered these words. “Kalb, what would you have us do?”
Kalb cleared his throat before he spoke. “This is a delicate matter. We are at a turning point in the training. Drum knows too much to let go, but he is no longer welcome here.”
“With all respect, this is a pack matter now.” I held my chin up and dared the Emperor to disagree. It might not have been a wise choice, but I made it anyway. I owed Tiny that much.
“A pack matter?” The Emperor snorted. “What does that mean?”
“If your child misbehaves, do you allow another to punish her, or do you punish her yourself? That is what I mean. He is one of us, and this is a pack matter. We must be allowed to decide for ourselves what punishment best suits him. This is not for our instructors, not this school, and, respectfully, not for you, Emperor, to decide.”
Grey looked as if I’d just struck him in the gut. He went white with fear and bowed as he shouted out an apology on my behalf, “Your excellency, I must apologize for this one! He is one of our newest recruits, and he has been slow to grasp his lessons on etiquette, and he does not yet grasp the chain of command or the more central fundamentals of soldiering!”
The Emperor’s eyebrow rose. “Yet I understand he is one of your more capable fighters.”
“He is, excellency.” Grey admitted, keeping his head low.
The Emperor turned to square his shoulders at me. “What would this pack justice entail?”
“It would fall upon our pack, as the injured pack, as well as Pack Chahar, his former pack, to decide.” I suggested. I’d not really thought that far ahead.
“And any decision would have to be agreed on by all of the packs as a collective, Emperor...” Bull suggested.
“Curious.” He turned to Kalb. “We shall see this done, this strange version of military justice. I will be staying in the quarters here until this justice is seen to. Keep me apprised of the situation. I would be present when any sentence and justice is handed out.”
The Emperor waved off his guards, who sheathed their weapons smoothly and fell back to follow him across the sand toward the south gates. He paused briefly, looking across the statues of himself and his family. I couldn’t be certain, but it almost seemed as if his gaze rested longest on the statue of Nokomi, his favorited daughter.
Abruptly, the Emperor turned back and announced, “I leave this matter in your hands, Go. Choose wisely in this grave situation. An ill choice here could mean the end of this place, but a wise choice could see you all at the center of my plans.”
With that, he vanished, leaving Kalb to glare at us for a moment longer before he, too, left, likely to confer with the Emperor. I had no doubt that he would be back. His dog, Teeth, barked at the whole lot of us twice, looking disapprovingly at what had befallen Tiny and Little Dog. He left as well, heavy paws taking him across the sand to the south gates.
Our instructors, Blue, Red, Grey, and Green fell upon us then, forcing us all back into our north wing with their curses, orders, and general disapproval. They made as if to have the auburn guards move Tiny, but Dog and I snarled and snapped at them. Panj carried their own.
Killer and the others took Tiny in their arms, while I cradled the wreckage of Little Dog in my two hands. He looked ever so small, a sad, broken caricature of what he had been in life. My hands and heart ached as I carried him, knowing I would never see those tiny teeth flash again, stabbing at my fingers when we played.
Panj took Tiny and Little Dog back to our room while a detachment of the auburn guards escorted Bear and Drum. Those two had given up any shred of resistance and followed lamely, doing as they were told for once. They would await their sentence in a cell, likely the one he’d been in just weeks before.
The gates to the north wing slammed shut behind us, but a detachment of guards waited in the halls, and we could hear our instructors arguing behind the gates.
There were decisions to be made.
Things went back to how they had been, to an extent. Many of the boys no longer knew what to do with themselves for their morning meal. It was no longer a fight. Perhaps they still needed to work out some aggression. Dogs were meant to be hunters, and now everything was just handed to us. Maybe that had been part of the purpose behind the feedings, however demeaning they had been.
We wandered the yard after our meals, and I took those opportunities to run around the perimeter of the yard. After a week of idleness, it felt wonderful to stretch our legs. Dog and I ran with abandon, enjoying the exertion. We worked on building our endurance. From time to time, Legs or some of our other pack mates joined us, but they ran because we did, not for the love of it. They ran as if it might help them understand us, and, in doing so, better understand how to become the beast.
Others watched us. Pack Yek had developed something akin to reverence for Dog and I. They watched us with the careful study of a student with a master, or possibly that of a doctor with a patient exhibiting strange symptoms.
We excelled in our classes, defeating Pack Chahar with ease in Red and Blue’s classes. With Drum recovering and still absent, they were rudderless. They were also a lot less cruel. Our five defeated their four resoundingly, but I made sure we did it with grace, as Pack Se had showed us. If we were to make allies of our enemies, it would not be through cruelty. We had to show them that our way was superior.
Red took the events of last week as a learnable moment, offering us his advice for what we should take away from the events. He saved the best of his speech for my first time back. “What happened before was unfortunate, but it was a lesson in many ways. I saw much that was admirable, and some that was not. I saw packs standing up for each other, working together to defeat common foes. That is the way of the army. I applaud you for this loyalty and strength of character.”
“I also saw some disrespecting the Emperor or those he has placed above us. This is never acceptable.” He paused to give me a look, as if I didn’t know he spoke mostly of Drum and I. “There is a chain of command. Everyone must follow orders. Even an Emperor is ultimately responsible to his people. We must all do our part.”
“I have also seen changes come to this place. While you might not always understand our methods, you must all understand that we are honing you to be weapons. When a blacksmith fires and pounds his heated metal, he does not apologize. He does not worry about being too tough on it. He works to shape and make that raw metal into something better, a tool or a sword. He cannot do that without pounding and shaping and sharpening what he makes. That is what we do to you all. We are in the process of making all of you into the finest weapons in the Emperor’s arsenal.”
I wanted to smile at this, but I kept it to myself. He spoke the truth as he knew it, but what they had was a problem not with their methods, but with their teachers. It was like having a wrestler teach a dancer, or a baker teach a woodworker. These were soldiers. They were not dog men like us.
In a couple weeks, I’d surpassed all of these boys in at least one way. I’d naturally been able to do what these teachers could not teach me. They might backpedal and try to explain their harsh methods, but there was something to be said for innate talent and instinct.
Blue had a similar lecture, but his was more about the loyalty to all members of the royal family and the respect we owed our rulers. He seemed more sympathetic with what I had done than Red, but only up to a point. It was nearly unforgiveable in his eyes to attack Green’s authority, and he spared me no measure of disdain for what I’d done.
Still, I was at the top of his class both times in the week. It didn’t matter if we faced Pack Chahar or Pack Do. Something had just clicked with Panj. I was a level beyond, and standing behind me, Panj was unbeatable. Tiny stood taller and looked fiercer than ever. Legs was confident and deadly quick. Killer was a mountain of assuredness. Face was with us, rounding out our group as if he’d always been one of us. The five of us were a force.
Grey was the only instructor to give us no lecture. Instead, he reviewed our clothing situation. He’d seen fit to give everyone in the program standardized uniforms, not just for when we came to his class, but for our time at the Kennel in general. We now had dress uniforms for his classes and any official events that might crop up in the future, and we had everyday uniforms… including shoes.
I felt odd wearing shoes. I hated them. I decided to never wear them, unless I was required to. Sandals, I could somewhat manage, but the soles of my feet had become like rough leather, like the pads of Dog’s feet. I could walk on just about anything, except for glass or thorns, and I’d be fine. Still, I made an effort and wore the strange things to Grey’s classes at least. The rest of the time, I ran free and barefoot, connected to the ground wherever I went.
The last class of the week was Red’s class with Pack Se. Bull had avoided me for the week, but he had been around. I’d seen him when we washed up or when we played stones, but we hadn’t spoken since my return. I’d seen him in the yard, but he never came up to me. He just watched, obviously still trying to decide what he thought of me or coming up with something to say to me. It was fine. He would speak his mind in time. That was the sort of person he was.
That’s how it would have gone, until Red forced the issue.
I faced off against Bull in the center ring, with everyone gathered around. It brought to mind the first time I’d been in this ring, facing Bull this time instead of Drum.
“Engage each other.” Red instructed, seeing as how Bull and I just stared at each other in a battle of gazes rather than fists and feet.
“We are.” Bull replied, folding his arms over his broad chest. He regarded me as if I might burst into a beast at any moment. Did he still see something of his friend in my features?
“Yeah.” I said, crossing my arms over my considerably smaller chest. I looked at him as if he were my friend, and I was confused as to why he looked at me thus. It wasn’t a stretch. I understood his caution, but not his complete refusal to speak with me. Was he worried I would seem rational and sensible now?
“Then fight now, or I’ll start shooting you both with real arrows.” Red growled.
Bull obliged, walking forward to lock arms for a grapple. Like he’d trained me in the rooms during our spare time, we fought. Except, he either held back, or I’d gained something.
He pushed, and I held him back. He pulled, and I resisted. He tried to throw me twice, but I always kept my feet. He hooked a leg behind my ankle, but I saw it coming. Eyes on his, I could see into him. I knew what he would do.
He disengaged abruptly. “I can’t fight him.”
“What do you mean? Those are your orders, Bull. Engage!” Red demanded.
Bull shook his head. “I can’t.”
Red climbed up onto the ring and put himself between us. He poked Bull in the chest with a finger and stabbed another one in the air in my direction. “You can fight him, and you will!”
Bull shook his head again. “He knows me too well. He reads my every move, and I can’t see what he’ll do. It’s like he’s in my head. I don’t know how, but he’s doing it.”
Red turned to me. I saw a flash of anger cross his eyes, and I knew what he would do. He whirled back toward Bull, slapping him full across the face. It was such a sudden and surprising move that it dropped Bull to the ground. He looked up at our instructor in shock, hand going to his stinging face.
“Get up, Bull. Fight. Use your anger. Anger feeds the transformation.”
Bull began to stand, only to get slapped down once more. This time, anger registered across his face, not shock. His bulldog growled from the ground, snapping at Red’s ankles, but he could not reach, and he was being held back from jumping up onto the ring. When Bull stood for a third time, he blocked the incoming slap and barked at Red.
Red smiled. “Good. Now go fight your opponent.”
Bull’s eyes flashed, but he still had a hint of hesitation as he charged me. I felt my muscles tense in anticipation. There was a hint of the beast in me as I dodged aside and struck him on the side. He grunted but kept coming. I struck again, harder. Still he came after me, arms like tangling spider webs!
What he lacked in speed, he made up in durability. Tenacious as his dog, he kept trying to close on me. I struck again and again, wearing him down, but he wore me down as well. We grappled, fighting with elbows, knees, and fists. When I finally broke free, his eyes were swollen. My bottom lip was split, my jaw ached, and one of my elbows throbbed. Both of us were panting and bleeding.
He grinned through his swollen eyes and threw his head back. He howled. Suddenly, all of the dogs in the room began to howl, led by Bull’s thick-necked dog. I felt something then, a tickle on the back of my neck. It was the infectious feeling of a pack, of a greater pack than I’d known.
Dog let out a long keening howl, the way of his breed. I didn’t even know that I was doing it with him until we all stopped, throats raw. They were all staring at me, both packs and our instructor.
Red took in the sight of us all, knowing he was on to something, but not quite sure how to bottle it all up and bring it back on demand. He looked very pleased with himself. He congratulated the two of us on our efforts and set about trying to repeat his success with other pairs of fighters, which he spread about the room.
With Red’s attention elsewhere, Bull nodded to me, lowering his head. His mouth formed a silent bark. I had not lost him after all. In fact, I’d brought him in even closer. Pack Se was all but mine.
Did Red even realize that he was setting me up as the leader of all the packs? Would he care?
National Novel Writing Month 2019: The Emperor's Dogs