It was eerily silent in the gallery, despite the presence of more people than I knew how to count. All thirty of the Emperor’s guards were there. Nearly as many auburn guards were there as well. Our four instructors were there, standing behind the Emperor and Kalb. They all faced us from the south side of the gallery as we were led out.
The whole of Pack Sefr came out from the north wing. We lined up in unity for the first time, each with a dog beside them, all of us except for Tiny, who stood only because Killer and Legs supported him where he stood. I was located in the middle of our group, standing directly opposed to the Emperor.
The whole place was lit with torch light. Some of the torches spat and hissed, still snapping from being recently lit. The smoke huddled in the still air, much of it not rising enough to be blown away up and over the roof. The haze lent to the strange air of severity on the sand.
“Bring out the accused.” The Emperor ordered.
Gates opened to permit Drum, who staggered and stumbled until he had to be carried by two guards. They threw him in a heap halfway between the Emperor and me. He was a mess – unwashed, unfed, and uncaring. He’d already given up on life. Bear was strangely absent, perhaps as a mercy to the animal. He would not have to witness his master’s death, not that he would feel it any less.
“Deliver the sentence to the prisoner.” The Emperor ordered.
I cleared my throat, suddenly finding it hard to speak. I’d never had to kill anyone before, let alone announce his death in front of such a crowd. One glance at Tiny gave me the strength I needed to continue.
“Drum is guilty of killing one of us. He is responsible for the death of Little Dog.” I announced. Dog lent me strength as well, standing tall beside me as I delivered the sentence.
Drum laughed and cried at once. “I am guilty.” He sobbed. “Kill me and be done with it.”
The Emperor drew his sword and handed it to Kalb. “This justice is administered in accordance with my will. Let it be done.”
“Wait!” Drum shouted, wheeling around to look at us all. His eyes were blurry and feverish. His chains rattled on his feet and ankles.
The Emperor froze, his sword still held out for Kalb’s waiting hands. “Speak.”
“What of my dog? What of Bear?” Drum asked.
“He will be allowed to live. If it is his will to live on, he may bond with another.” The Emperor explained.
Drum nodded sadly. “Thank you.” He managed to croak.
“The instrument of my justice.” The Emperor continued, letting Kalb take his blade this time.
Kalb carried it over to me, with Teeth following at his heels. Dog tensed beside me, as if this were wrong. I held out my hands anyway, taking the blade when it was offered.
I stared at the blade. It felt alien in my hands. Wrong. It was a finely-crafted blade, worth more than anything I’d ever touched, but it wasn’t right. I looked at Dog. He looked at me. He seemed to shake his head, but that was a very human description for the senses I felt coming from him.
“Emperor, if I might?” This had to be done right.
“What is it you require, executioner?” The Emperor asked a little impatiently. He was used to his will being carried out promptly when he asked.
“Drum is one of us, as much dog as human.” I explained. “If I might? Could I kill him in the manner of our kind? He is chained and being executed with a weapon. Should he not be killed while unbound, free in death if not life? And should I not kill him with my bare hands?”
At this, even some of the Emperor’s guards shifted uneasily. The Emperor looked dumbfounded. “The sword offers a clean death. It is merciful. What you suggest is crueler, is it not?” The Emperor looked to his advisor. “Kalb?”
Kalb looked at me, both surprised and a little afraid. “If it is their way?”
“Shall we ask Drum?” I suggested.
The Emperor looked uncomfortable at this, but asked anyway. “Drum. You have heard your options. Will you be executed unchained, falling under the hands of this man, or do you want to be put down quickly with my own blade?”
Drum looked up at me, his eyes focusing, if just for a moment. His eyes went to the sword, then back to me. “Kill me like a dog. Kill me with your own claws and teeth.”
It felt right. I looked to the Emperor for permission. He nodded, so I handed the sword back to Kalb. With a flick of the Emperor’s hands, the auburn guards unchained Drum and backed away quickly. Yet if they expected him to attack or attempt to flee, they were disappointed.
Drum made no move to escape. Instead, he rubbed his wrists and settled onto his knees on the sand. He looked up to me. “Do it.”
I nodded and looked to Dog. Dog tensed beside me, knowing what was coming next.
It started as a tingle along my scalp, a burning that spread through my body. The hairs on my neck stood up. I felt pain in my fingertips as my nails elongated. My face began to ache, and I felt my features distort into a half muzzle. My eyes blurred and then came into incredible focus. My muscles tightened like steel wires strung taut across my bones.
Kalb stiffened beside me. Perhaps he’d never seen someone else do what he could. I glanced at him, seeing myself mirrored in his eyes. His eyes glowed yellow, as if just seeing me change was a contagious thing that he was just barely holding back. At his side, Teeth stood apprehensively, cowed by my presence.
The Emperor stood stock still, his jaw clenched tight. I saw him nod, but the smell of fear coming from around the gallery was terribly sweet. Few had seen a man come so close to beast before, perhaps not even the Emperor himself.
I took a step over to Drum, who lifted his chin, offering his neck for slicing. He looked up suddenly, meeting my beastly gaze. “Take care of Bear.” He whispered.
Then I tore out his throat. My claws ripped through his flesh with ease. His shredded voice box bubbled and whistled. His eyes bulged, and he hit the ground, bleeding out into the sand.
As he gasped his last, I threw my head back and howled. A chorus of barks and howls erupted from the gallery: all of Pack Sefr and Kalb as well. Dogs and boys, we made an awful racket in the still night.
Distantly, I felt something in that moment, a connection. Had Nokomi felt me? Had I felt her?
When it was over, I bowed to the Emperor, and then I bowed once more to my pack. They returned the bow.
I let go of the beast, for now.
Someday soon, I would need it again, and I would call it.
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.
Mongrel’s mutt recovered, but limped still. I suspected there was a break, but it would heal. Mongrel knew his animal best. He spent the better part of a week resting, skipping classes to stay in an almost constant state of meditation. His whole reduced pack sat with him in the evenings. Even Pack Yek sat with them one night, making a second circle that surrounded the four members of Chahar as they watched over the wounded dog. I’m not certain that it helped, but they kept Mongrel fed and focused on getting better.
I knew what it was to share pain with my animal. Dog and I had both been hurt before, and the healing always went fastest when we both experienced it. It is nearly impossible to fully explain the sensation with one who has not bonded with another in the same way. Perhaps a parent knows what it is to watch a child suffer, to want to take on some of their pain. But what if they really could? That is what it is for us of the Old Blood.
For days and weeks, Drum was a festering sore on our collective hides. He remained bitterly alone, although he attended classes with Chahar. He was clearly apart from them, but he had nowhere else to go, and the instructors seemed dumbfounded by the changes, however warranted.
They had no procedures for a lone student, one shunned by his pack and shut out from socializing with the other packs. It wasn’t what was supposed to happen, so they went on as if nothing was wrong, and that did nothing to deal with the problem. Drum grew more bitter, more withdrawn. Bear snapped at everyone.
They began feeding him alone, but it had been quite the conversation the first night when meal time came. They’d sent for Green, who had demanded to know what was going on. No one would say anything about the ostracized former leader of Chahar. Green even cast his accusing eyes at me, but he relented when my whole pack defended me.
In the end, they’d started sending a sixth basket of food, a small one, with Drum and Bear’s food in it. He’d become Pack Sefr without intending to do so. The nickname stuck, even when they went to classes. The other boys would always joke about having to battle against Pack Sefr, but as vicious as Drum was becoming, no one really wanted to do it.
It was into this mess that the Emperor walked. He came for an unannounced inspection. We didn’t know what was going on. We just knew that we were all woken up early one morning by Grey and we were told to put on our dress uniforms and gather in the gallery.
“What’s going on?” Everyone asked at once.
“The Emperor is here!” Grey hissed. “He’s trying to see how his investment has paid off. You all need to be dressed and presentable in fifteen minutes. Make it happen.” He clapped, setting off a commotion of dressing, washing, and shoe-tying.
We all hurried to the bathroom to wash up, comb our hair with our fingers, pee, and get ourselves presentable, all of us except Drum. The energy was palpable. It was like preparing for war, a war against being found lacking.
Back in our rooms, we struggled with tying shoes. Killer was the best at it. His thick fingers were surprisingly nimble. He tied my shoes and everyone else’s in the room. We looked each other over, straightening collars and hair for each. I imagine that all of our preening was pathetic compared to what real soldiers would have done, but we did our best.
Before we were really ready, we were led out into the gallery. We fell into ranks by pack, arranging ourselves in order of experience, with Yek at one end and our pack at the other.
The sun was morning sun was just creeping up over the horizon, threatening to spill its light over the second floor walls of the gallery. The air was humid, but chilly, and the ground was damp with the morning dew. We fidgeted under the watchful gaze of our three instructors: Red, Blue, and Grey. They seemed as nervous as we were. Green was nowhere to be seen.
Grey gave us a few reminders as we awaited our inspections. “Remember, you are servants of the Emperor. Display yourselves as worthy of his attention, but remember your manners! You will not speak to him unless spoken to. You will answer any and every question quickly and fully.”
Red’s pep talk followed Grey’s. “Display yourselves as soldiers. Stand tall. Stand proud!” He paced up and down our row, fixing collars, straightening shirts, and demanding that no fewer than three pairs of shoes were retied properly. He made several sit their dogs at attention. According to him, dogs were not to laze about in the presence of the Emperor.
I smiled at this. Did they not understand animals? Dogs lazed about most of the day. It was in their natures. They stood at attention for a reason and quickly became relaxed when there was a lack of a reason.
Blue had no words. He merely eyed the whole lot of us critically. He was as quiet and serious as the auburn guards, all of which seemed to be present and on the grounds. The auburn guards nervously shifted their stances, slight twitches that would have been unnoticeable to some without such sharp senses as we had.
We stood in that humid morning air, smelling breakfast being cooked somewhere in the south wing. More than one stomach growled. Tiny laughed, but quickly quieted once more when Blue’s gaze shifted his way.
Eventually, the south gates opened, permitting a troop of no less than a score of armored soldiers. They fanned out, ten going each way. These were professional killers, and they were attired as such. They moved with predatory grace that exhibited their obvious skill.
They wore spiked helmets, with chainmail draping down over their shoulders and neck. Nose guards from the helmets and red scarf across the face obscured all but the soldiers’ eyes. Their armor was layers of leather and scales, with the scales set more heavily into the chest and shoulders of their armor. Layered leather skirting protected their hips and thighs. Some of them wore vambraces over their wrists. Those ones carried bronze-tipped throwing spears, with several extra spears holstered across their backs. The others wore heavy gloves and carried pairs of curved swords, one at each hip.
Clearly, this show of force was to dissuade any of us, like me, from challenging the Emperor as I had defied Green just a few weeks back. The Emperor entered with Green on his left and Kalb on his right. Another ten soldiers followed him in. From watching them, I knew that in moments, the three groups could fold in and create a deadly triangle around their Emperor, one that our concerted effort would likely not succeed in breaking.
The Emperor was much as I recalled – exactly like his statue, if smaller. The statue was, of course, far beyond human scale, probably double his actual size. He wore his conical head wrap and his layered coats and wide pants. Belted over his gilded coat was that same curved blade I remembered from the day I met Nokomi.
I craned my neck, hoping beyond all reason that the Emperor had brought his daughter with him on this inspection. But why would he? Why would he bring her to this secret school full of dogs and boys? There was no hint of her scent on the wind.
The Emperor strode out to five long paces in front of us and regarded us all with his shrewd gaze. “This is what I am spending so much money on? This rabble of dogs and underfed boys?”
Kalb laughed. “Was I not also an underfed boy when we met? Have I not proven my worth, Majesty?”
The Emperor’s face crinkled into a smile. “Very true, old friend.” He clapped Kalb across the shoulder. Then he reached down and rubbed Teeth between the ears. Teeth’s tongue lolled out happily.
Tiny and I exchanged gazes. Blue’s hawk eyes swiveled our way again. We snapped back to attention.
The Emperor paced the length of our class, from Yek to Panj, and back again. He stopped here and there, inquiring about breeds of specific dogs. On his way past our pack, he locked eyes with me for a moment and looked as if he might say something.
Instead, the Emperor turned to Tiny and smiled. “That is quite a small animal beside you. What is his name?”
L.D. growled, baring all of his small teeth at the Emperor, shocking Grey, but eliciting a laugh from the Emperor. Tiny sketched a clumsy bow and did his best to answer. “L.D., Emperor. His name is L.D., for Little Dog.”
“Fierce, isn’t he?” The Emperor favored both dog and boy with a warm smile.
“I think he likes you, Sir.” Tiny suggested. L.D. seemed to comply with a bug-eyed snarl.
The Emperor laughed aloud, a deep belly laugh. “I’d hate to see what he’d do if he didn’t like me.”
“Would you now, your highness?” A voice drawled.
We all turned to the source of the voice, finding Drum strolling out from the north gates with his beast of a dog, Bear. Guards all through the gallery put hands to weapons, but none drew. They would not, not without orders.
“Who is this one?” The Emperor inquired, curious about the one who walked out when he pleased and spoke when not spoken to.
“That one is Drum.” Green said, matter-of-factly. His voice was tight, and his expression most severe. He nearly waved the auburn guards to surround them, but the Emperor held up his hand to stop any such thing from happening.
“Ahh, so this is the one who despoiled my daughter’s statue.” The Emperor looked Drum over appraisingly, his eyes lingering longest on the beast beside him.
Drum looked surprised that the Emperor had heard of his exploits, but he didn’t seem to care. He’d shown up in his street rags, refusing to put on the uniforms as we all had. He went barefoot, true to himself. His dog, every massive pound of him, bristled at the guards.
I had a sick feeling in my stomach as Drum sidled up just beyond us to join the line, putting himself in the sixth position, as a group of one, rather than trying to retake his place with Chahar. He truly was showing himself to be Pack Sefr. Bear did not sit. He stood, swiveling his large head back and forth, growling at everyone.
“So you’ve heard about that?” Drum laughed. “We’re all dogs here.”
The Emperor favored him with a hard stare, but Drum’s fevered eyes were wild and unfocused. He didn’t wilt under that gaze as he might have once. “We piss on things, my Emperor. It’s what we do.”
“It’s what you do.” Tiny muttered just loud enough for everyone to hear. L.D. yipped in agreement.
“Yes. Making messes. It’s what we do.” Drum smiled sickly, turning to Tiny. He signaled to Bear, and the massive dog surged over, snapping L.D. up in his jaws. It was all of two steps for him. No one could have stopped him.
With a quick wet crunch, it was all over. L.D. was dead. Bear spat Tiny’s fierce little dog onto the sand. Broken. Lifeless.
Tiny dropped to his knees as if shot in the heart, going white in the face. A scream died in his throat, ending as a gurgle. His eyes rolled back in his head and he fainted right out, hitting the sand as if he’d been struck dead.
I felt a howl in the back of my throat, and everything started to happen all at once…
We had a week of peace, and most everyone got along. Scar was easily the most difficult person left in our wing, but he was only openly hostile if you bothered him. Left alone, he mostly just shot ugly looks at you from across the room. Then again, that might have just been because his scars made it impossible for him to actually smile.
Drum, on the other hand, was the type that sought out conflict. His pack had actually been pleasant for the week he was gone. And they’d been pretty agreeable they week prior to that, I’d also heard, but I’d been in my cell, so I couldn’t actually vouch for that.
When Drum was finally given medical clearance to leave his cell, we couldn’t help but wonder how that was affect his pack and the social climate of all the packs at the Kennel. He didn’t make us wait long to find out.
Drum strolled into the gates, already spitting angry. Unlike my return, he was not greeted by his pack mates. They were not eagerly waiting for his return. He also did not return as a victor but as a disgrace. He entered the halls of his former home after two weeks, finding no one there to greet him.
He had to walk past our room to get to Chahar’s room, and he caught a glimpse of Face sitting among us. His mouth fell open, and vile words failed to come at first. I couldn’t help but wonder what he thought, seeing us all in our clean, new clothes, gathered around tables. What a change it must have been, after having lived here for months on end, wearing rags and sleeping on piles of straw or old blankets.
“Just keep him. Worthless anyway.” He finally snorted.
Face looked at us, and we looked back at him. We collectively shrugged, and the five of us went back to talking about a stones game we’d played the day before, ignoring the swearing that slid from Drum’s mouth as he continued up the hall.
It was only a few moments later when we heard a commotion from Chahar’s room. The noise spilled out into the hallway, swearing and lots of shouting echoing for all to hear. It should have been expected, but it was still a surprise somehow.
I scrambled to my feet. I didn’t exactly like Chahar’s guys, but they were actually tolerable without Drum. I had a feeling they might even turn out to be decent, given enough time away from their feisty leader.
“What do you mean I’m not your leader?” Drum screamed, trying to push his way into the room.
Nose and Hound were holding him back. Mongrel wore a triumphant look. “You’ve pushed us around too long, Drum. You can take your place at the bottom of the pack, or you can go sleep in one of the other rooms. Maybe you can start your own new pack? Pack Sefr maybe?”
I blinked in surprise. They were throwing him out? I’d offered to step down, but my pack had kept me on. Chahar was ousting Drum, even threatening to throw him out entirely. This wasn’t the sort of thing that Drum would take lightly.
Tiny muttered something, completely amusement. “Pack Zero, eh?”
“Is that what Sefr means?” I wondered. It was not a word I’d heard before.
“Nothing. Zero.” Killer agreed.
“That’s pretty cold.” Face almost looked sorry for Drum. Almost.
“Who’s going to replace me? You, Mongrel?” Drum laughed haughtily.
Mongrel crossed his arms and lifted his chin proudly. “And what if I am?”
“I could take you apart where you stand.” Drum said threateningly.
“Maybe you could. The difference is that we’re not all fighting each other for your approval any more. Now, the four of us stand together, and the four of us can certainly take you down if Go could do it by himself.”
Drum’s whole body filled with rage. He flashed a look my way, sensing us in the halls, not that half of every pack wasn’t in the halls anyway. “You motherless sons of…”
He never got to finish his insult. Nose and Hound threw him backward into the wall. He rebounded and dropped to his knees. Drum had never been the largest boy, and he’d just recovered from a flogging. Now, that weakness was made apparent. He looked so small huddled behind his dog, who growled defensively.
Before, he’d always stood behind his massive dog and ruled with fear, but he couldn’t just run his mouth and stand behind his dog any longer. His pack wasn’t going to put up with his bullying and abuse.
“Get out, Drum. Stay in your own room. Maybe we’ll let you in tomorrow, if you beg.” Mongrel was a little too smug in his reply, and Drum, beaten or not, had some pride left.
Drum threw himself forward, and Bear followed. Drum tackled Mongrel to the ground and started pounding at his face with his fists while Bear took Mongrel’s mutt in his massive mouth and shook. The brown mutt yelped in pain, and when Bear shook him loose, the smaller dog sailed into the wall.
The remaining members of Chahar fell upon Drum, while the three dogs struggled to put up a fight against Bear. It got ugly. There was a lot of frustration and hate in that group, things that had festered too long. I longed to jump into this, but it was not my place. They needed to work it out.
In a short while, all five of them were beaten and bruised, but none worse than Mongrel’s mutt and Drum. Drum and Bear limped away to an empty room, beaten once more. For once, he was wordless and dead-eyed, except for the look of pure malice he shot my way. I’d been the one to first illustrate his vulnerability, and since then, things had certainly gone from bad to worse for him. Clearly, I was the one he’d blame most for his downfall.
“Welcome back, Drummy!” Tiny taunted as Drum retreated into his new room.
Drum paused to nod at Tiny, laughing hollowly. I shot Tiny a warning look, but the words were already out. Tiny had just made himself a target for all that hate, and he was a lot easier target than I was.
The rest of Chahar gathered in their room to tend to Mongrel’s mutt, who was in a bad way. I knew this wasn’t over. Drum wouldn’t let this be. It was just going to get worse, but I had no idea just how bad it would get.
The new week started much like the last, with a sand-covered breakfast. I ate it without relish, frowning at my fellows as we did so.
“This is not right.” I said, spitting out a mushy part of a zucchini that had been stepped on.
“It’s this or go hungry.” Legs was ignoring the sand and burying his face in a piece of fruit that was nearly unrecognizable.
“Maybe we should go hungry then.” I remarked, tossing the food aside.
Tiny laughed at this idea. “You want to do Red’s class on an empty stomach? Good luck. Chahar will pound you into the ground if you don’t have the energy to fight back.”
Legs nodded emphatically in agreement. He still chewed at what I took to be the white insides of a quince. It wasn’t very appetizing, whatever it was.
Killer looked around at the faces that surrounded him, torn between his belly and his loyalty to me. In the end, his stomach won out. “We need the energy. Eat, Go, and we can try to fix this later.”
Sighing, I knew he was right. I picked up a chunk of meat and took a bite, swallowing grit with it. “It can’t come soon enough.”
Truthfully, I’d eaten dirty castoffs and moldy food much of my life. It wasn’t that I couldn’t eat it. It was how it was presented to us. If I only managed to scavenge a moldy bread crust one day, that was my fault. If I found better, of course I’d eat it. Sometimes, given the choice between rotten food and no food, I’d chosen no food. Here, we were just handed food, but they still couldn’t feed it to us in a way that treated us like people. They insisted on this humiliating fashion of feeding us one meal of a day just to remind us that we were only as good as beasts – until they needed us to be something more than that.
Killer met my gaze. “If we get others to join us, maybe they will change things. If it’s only the four of us, it will change nothing.”
I smiled and nodded. We’d made some headway with the game yesterday, joining nearly three packs for a single meal. If we could all come together, or at least most of us, we might be able to convince them to stop feeding us like animals.
Dog was watching something. I followed his gaze to a man in green watching us from the decorated box seats on the south balcony. Leaning over the rail, his piercing eyes were upon me. He made no attempt to disguise the fact that he was watching me.
I nudged Legs and Tiny, nodding toward the man in green. Killer turned as well, looking at the man. He met our eyes without hesitation. From his features, he could easily have been Blue, Red, or Grey, except that he wore a green uniform.
“Who is he?” Tiny wondered aloud.
“I don’t know.” I frowned. “I’m sure we will learn soon enough.”
I glanced around the gallery, but no one else seemed to have noticed him, except for Pack Yek. All eight of them had eyes on Green, until he turned and walked away. Then, they turned as one to look at me. I squirmed under the collective weight of their gazes, but continued to stare back at them. They broke first, turning in toward each other to whisper.
When we went outside into the yard, I struck out across the sand and scrub grass and headed immediately toward Bull and pack Se. This was something of a breach of decorum. Normally, packs would melt away, and you could meet a straggler out away from the pack, but you would not approach a whole pack to speak. To do so was something of a challenge.
Pack Se, normally so calm, bristled at me. Bull held up a hand to still the pack. His bulldog eyed me warily. “Go? What is it?”
“Green. Did you see him?”
Bull’s head cocked to the side at me, a canine look of confusion. It would have been comical had his face not been so serious. “Green? He’s here?”
“He was in the gallery watching me.”
Bull stepped away from his pack and sent a searching look out at the walls. The auburn guards paced at even intervals, as always. Everything about this morning was normal, except for the appearance of Green back in the gallery.
“Green is dangerous.” Bull whispered to me.
“Who is he?”
“He’s another instructor. I’ve only seen him once or twice before. He reports directly to Yellow-Eyes.”
“Who is Yellow-Eyes?”
Bull smiled at me as if I were being stupid. “The bearded man with the big dog? The one who addressed your new pack on your first day here?”
“Oh. Kalb. You call him Yellow-Eyes…”
“Kalb?” Bull looked astonished. “Is that his name?”
“That’s what Nokomi, the Emperor’s daughter called him. I suppose that is his name.”
Bull couldn’t have looked more surprised had I reached out and smacked him across the face. “Nokomi? The Emperor’s Daughter? Go, how exactly did you get here?”
“I was caught in the Bazaar with Nokomi. She is my friend. I’ve known her since we were both very small children. We met one day in the streets. Dog and I killed a desert cat to protect her.”
“So you know the Emperor’s daughter…”
“I met the Emperor that day, also. He showed up with Kalb, your Yellow-Eyes. They thought she needed to be protected from me, I think. I ran from them then, but he caught me just a few days ago, just when I’d finally met her again.”
Bull nodded slowly, taking in the details of my story. He thought before speaking, looking once more at the guards. He whispered to me then, conspiratorially, “If what you say is true, then you are to be watched. It explains why Green is watching you. None of us here was personally captured and recruited by Yellow-Eyes. None of us have met the Emperor or his daughter, either.”
“Does that matter?”
“Because, Yellow-Eyes used to tell us a story of a boy that saved the Emperor’s daughter. That boy… No. If what you say is truth, then you are the cause of this whole place, of us being brought here.”
I stared at Bull, a mixture of horror and surprise on my face. I was the reason this place existed? I was why all of these boys had been brought here and treated this way?
“You see, if one of our kind could protect his daughter so well, what would an army of boys like us be able to do for the Emperor?” There was a flinty hardness to Bull’s eyes. He did not blame me for what had brought him here, but I could tell that he was not entirely fine with my involvement either.
“What does Green coming here have to do with me?”
“I think your little game roused them. Becoming one pack… is this what they want, or does it scare them?”
“I must be true to myself, Bull.” I replied, causing Dog to yip in agreement.
“True, but we must all be true to ourselves. I think that your past is a story that many here would not be ready for. If you shared it freely, some would fear you, some would hate you, and some would follow you.”
“And which are you?”
Bull shook his head. “I can’t say. I don’t really know. Not yet, anyway.”
“What should I do?”
“As you said, you must be true to yourself. Just know that Green might take your actions, however small, to have deeper meanings. Anything and everything you do could be taken back to Yellow-Eyes.”
“Kalb.” I said the name aloud. “Always things revolve around him.”
Bull nodded. We waited in silence, thinking. Dog sniffed at Bull’s dog. Then the two sat side by side, just like how Bull and I were standing. We stood there, watching the others, realizing at length that many of the others were searching for rocks to play the game with. That made me smile.
“Go?” Bull asked after a lengthy silence, glancing sideways at me, almost hesitantly.
“What was the Emperor’s daughter like?”
I smiled. “Like a laughing sunrise, and she smelled like the handkerchief in the maze. She was my first human friend.”
Bull’s nostrils flared and his eyes narrowed. He shifted his stance nervously. “This is a dangerous game they play with us. You are more involved than you know.”
I could say nothing to that. I had no answers to that.
Later, when we went back inside, I went to Red’s lesson with Bull’s words echoing in my head. Once again, we were paired against Pack Chahar. This time, we fought in pairs, working with each other against two opponents. Killer and I were matched against Drum and the boy with the hound, named Nose.
Unlike the previous week, Drum was a bit reserved when put to fighting me. He flinched away, as if truly scared of me. I used it to my advantage, and we defeated him and his partner again and again. Legs and Tiny didn’t fare quite so well against their two opponents, although Bull’s extra training clearly seemed to have had some impact, because they won at least one match. They had tenacity, if nothing else.
Partway through our lesson, I heard the door open, and I saw Green walk in. He waved us on, signaling us to continue. He said nothing, but he watched, pacing back and forth. However, even when he was at other circles, supposedly watching what they were doing, his eyes always seemed to seek me out. I made a point of ignoring him, concentrating on my opponents instead.
It was a relief when the lesson ended, and we were allowed to go to our rooms and bathe. As we left, I cast a glance over my shoulder, catching Red and Green conversing. They both looked up and stared at me at the same moment. I grinned. I’m not sure why. It was one of those guilty grins, like a boy who has been caught stealing sweets.
They did not smile back.
Our instructors waited beside the west gate, the only gate I’d yet to see open. Red, Blue, and Grey each held up signs with characters written on them. I couldn’t read them, so I paid careful attention to where the other packs went, trotting alongside the whole group.
Pack Yek lined up with Grey. He held only one sign. I memorized the character. Packs Do and Se lined up with Blue, who held up two signs. I didn’t know which was which, but I memorized the two. Later, I’d try to figure out how to distinguish between them. Red also held up two signs, one of them was apparently ours, because Legs began lining up in front of it. Chahar was apparently with us as well.
I glanced over at their group, meeting eyes once more with their leader and his giant dog. The smaller boy nodded to me, grinning wickedly. I felt anxious, but not scared. If we were going to have this thing out, at least Red would be there. He wouldn’t let things go too far, would he?
The west gate opened, admitting us. We watched Yek enter first with their instructor, followed by Blue and his two classes, and finally Red, who we followed. Chahar led the way, refusing to give way to our smaller pack. I was fine watching them enter. It gave us more time to observe as we went down the hallway.
Unlike the west gate, which led straight through the thick wall and out into the yard, this hall was longer. It rather quickly ran into a long hallway that ran north-south through the building. Several doors were on the far side of the hallway, one of which being where Blue led his two packs. From the sound of the echoes within that room, it seemed rather large. Grey took his class all the way down the hallway in the direction of the north wing, although they stayed within the rooms of this western wing of the complex.
That left our two packs and Red. We took the large room beside the one that Blue had entered with his packs. Red stood beside the double doors, which he’d opened, and held out a hand to indicate that we were to enter. I was unprepared for what the room held.
Some thirty paces on a side, the far wall had several high windows that admitted light that supplemented the illumination from the skylights above us. The large room was lined with racks of weapons on the right side, as one faced inward from the entrance. An assortment of blunt staves, poles, wooden swords, and chains hung in the nearest part of that wall, while locked cases of swords, knives, spears, and other edged weapons were just beyond them. A third section, toward the far wall, featured various ranged weapons: slings, small crossbows, and bows with a variety of arrows.
Piles of other equipment had been carefully stacked on the opposite wall, to my left. Some of the items had obvious purposes, things like bars, posts, wooden platforms, ropes, scaffolding, and weights. Other things were less obvious in their purpose, and there were closed crates of gear as well. I both wondered and worried about what sorts of things they might contain.
The floor of the room was laid out with five combat circles, all painted white. The central circle was largest, about five long paces across, with the other four arranged around it like corners of a box. The central circle was situated atop a ring of raised earth in the exact middle of the room. It looked to be made of packed reddish clay, built nearly waist high on me. The white ring that had been painted on top of the platform had been marred by footprints, but was still mostly intact.
The other four rings were similar, but not quite as large, and they were not nearly so high, perhaps ankle high at most. Between the five rings, there were places where ropes, rings, and bars were hung from the ceiling. Most of those had been drawn up out of the way for the moment.
Red indicated with two pointed fingers, one from each hand, that we should gather in our packs in front of him. When we gathered in the spots as he’d asked, he began his instruction, starting with a well-rehearsed speech, one he would begin every class with.
“No one wanted you. No one cared for you. You were without purpose, wild beasts. Now, you will live like true dogs, serving the only man who wants your loyalty, the only one who will offer you a place in this life: Emperor.”
He pointed to a painting of the Emperor on the wall above the doors. “Your master!”
Pack Chahar gave a bark and a stiff bow. We did the same after looking at one another. We might not have done it as loudly or with as much practice as them, but we followed their example anyway.
Satisfied with our introduction to his class, Red began pacing back and forth in front of our group. “As your fighting instructor, it is my privilege to instruct you in the ways of combat. You will learn to be deadly with any weapon you are handed, or without one. You were born with natural weapons beyond those of most normal humans. Your hands are your claws, your teeth are your fangs, and your dogs are an extension of your bodies, extra weapons in your arsenal. You must be as deadly as a dozen men, no matter your size. To be any less is to be worthless in our Emperor’s service.”
“Drum. Here. Now.” Red snapped his fingers and asked Chahar’s leader to join him. The boy was quick to join him at his side. “Weapon of choice?” He asked.
“Spear.” Drum answered immediately. He didn’t even need to think about it.
“Why?” Red demanded.
It gives me superior reach. It is deadly from a distance and up close. I can throw it or hold it. Either way, I can kill.”
“You.” Red pointed at me. “Here. Now.”
I joined him on his left side, where Drum stood on his right.
“Same question. Weapon of choice?”
I did not have an immediate answer for him. Instead, I looked to the wall appraisingly before settling on my answer. “My hands.”
Red’s mouth twisted into a smile. “Why?”
“If I drop a knife, I cannot use it. If a club is taken from me, I have nothing. You cannot take my hands from me. I can use them to make anything into a weapon. Or, I can choke, punch, and claw you with them.”
“An interesting answer, boy. Now gather around, boys and dogs. Let us see then, how their answers serve them.”
Red leaped over to the wall to grab a blunted spear. Then, he hurried back to the center of the room, where he waved Drum and me up onto the ring. Before I knew it, I was upon the packed clay, standing directly across from the smaller boy, but he held a spear, and I had nothing but my own two hands. The rest of our two packs had gathered around the base of the circle, looking up at us.
Red cleared his throat and turned slowly, pointing a finger from his left hand as he turned and spoke, “Guard yourselves well, and remember that fights are never even. Your opponents could always be faster, smarter, stronger, bigger, or better equipped and trained than you. It is up to you to exploit their weaknesses and make them into your advantages.”
Red stepped down from the ring and Drum charged immediately. Apparently, there would be no signal to begin, but I had not expected one. Dog barked a warning, but I’d known the attack was coming.
Drum’s two-handed hold on his spear shortened his possible reach, which was good for me, because there was not a lot of space within the circle where I could hide from him. I dodged the initial stab, but he came back with three more, which had me backpedaling and side-stepping along the edge of the circle. My bare feet whispered across the clay, kicking up dust and the talc that white line had been painted with. Drum was quick, I had to give him that. I doubted he’d tire before he hit me, so I knew I had to do something.
The alleys had taught me to survive. Dog and I had always known when to hide, when to run, and when to attack. This was one of those times. I let Drum close on me, waving his spear threateningly. He thought he had me cornered, but that’s just what I wanted him to believe.
He came at me, and I leaned backward, as if I was going to overbalance and fall from the platform. As expected, he sent his spear right at my guts. I snaked my body to the side and grabbed the haft of the spear, tugging it with all of my might. This was like a tug-of-war game I’d played before with Dog, standing on top of a crate in the alleys, but I’d adapted it to this new situation.
My pull against his weight kept me atop the platform while he kept moving forward with his momentum. Drum sailed past me, landing on the ground off of the platform, amidst a crowd that scattered as he fell. His spear clattered uselessly on the floor. He gathered himself up onto his knees slowly, shocked by what had just happened.
His large dog found him and nudged him encouragingly until he stood. I waited silently in the center of the platform, preparing for what would come next. With murder in his eyes, Drum stepped back over to the edge of the platform and pulled himself up, bringing his spear with him. He expected me to attack him as he got back up, but I didn’t strike when he was most vulnerable. It unnerved him to see me waiting to attack.
Changing tactics, he began to swing the spear overhead with one hand, greatly extending his reach. I waited until he got close and feinted as if I’d go low, trying to get under his spear, but that was what he wanted me to do. I could see his strategy in the way he planned to shift his hands to a two-handed grasp once more and strike when I was within his range. When he drew back to fend off my attack, I ran to the side instead, sliding off of the platform.
Dumbfounded by what he took as surrender, Drum turned to Red and held his hands up. “He ran away!”
Only I hadn’t. I’d gotten him right where I wanted. I slid back through the watching crowd, and without getting back up onto the platform entirely, I was able to slide up onto my belly and grab his ankles. One yank at his feet dropped him right onto his face. A moment later I stood above him with my foot pressing into his hands, forcing him to let go of his spear.
“BEAR!” He screamed, unwilling to give up.
Drum’s massive dog bounded up on top of the platform. The mass of fur and muscle barreled right at me, trying to save his master. I spun to the side, kicking the spear with me as I went.
Dog leaped up and found his place beside me. The two of us, him with his teeth and me with my enemy’s spear, faced down the aptly named Bear as it advanced on us.
“Enough.” Red barked. He held his hands up to signal the end of the combat. Bear backed down immediately, though Drum clearly wanted to continue.
“I am impressed in what I saw. What is your name, new boy?”
“Go.” I answered.
“And your animal?”
“Go and Dog of Pack Panj.” Red repeated, nodding. He was not the sort that would forget it.
Red placed himself between the two of us and our dogs. “Bow to your opponents, Drum and Bear of Pack Chahar. Bow to your opponents, Go and Dog of Pack Panj.”
I bowed to Drum and his dog, though I liked it not. Still, if this was part of what was expected, I’d have to do it. I’d gotten lucky using tricks this time. Next time, Drum would be ready for me. I’d just made him hate me all the more. The look in his eyes promised retribution.
Red ignored the nasty look my opponent favored me with. “Competitors you may be now, but you all serve the same master, and he is your true pack leader, your alpha.” He let that sink in for a moment.
“Now, we’re going to pair off. We will rotate partners every five minutes. Then we will do exercises. You cannot be the most dangerous warriors if you have not mastered your own bodies. We will make you fast, strong, tireless, and flexible. Your dogs will train beside you. Only when dog and man are both in peak condition can you be your most deadly.”
“For those of you that are new here, you will see me three days out of eight. Blue will have you for two. Grey will have you for one. The other two days are your own to rest, to clean yourselves, and to bond with your pack.”
What followed was an exhausting set of exercises, including: grappling, wrestling, weights, running, balance, and weapons training. At least, for the rest of the class, I did not have to face Drum again.
Class ended with a bow to the portrait of the Emperor. Then we were dismissed and sent back to the north wing – the dog house. There, we waited for dinner, and prepared to sleep in shifts, ready for reprisals from Drum and Pack Chahar.
National Novel Writing Month 2019: The Emperor's Dogs