I’m not sure exactly how he knew, but Drum found me out there by the statue. Maybe someone told him. Maybe he just knew I’d go out there to see his handiwork. It didn’t matter, so long as he was there.
Drum strolled out, hands on his hips and his head thrown back in a haughty laugh. His giant dog came out beside him, carrying itself as all fur and muscle and threats. Pack Chahar filed out behind him, including Face, who had a blackening eye and scratches across his neck; his dog was limping. That only fueled the fires of my anger.
I cast a glance at Dog. He was with me. His eyes were resolute, rings of dark brown fury that were a perfect mirror to my own.
“Clean the statue now.” I ordered, pointing at Drum.
Drum laughed again, looking around at his crew as if he couldn’t believe I’d say such a thing. They all laughed, though their laughs were a forced echo of his.
“This is your one chance to do this without a fight.”
“Who are you going to fight, Go? You and your wild little dog have no chance against us. It’s six against one.”
I didn’t point out that one of theirs was hurt and likely wouldn’t fight me. I didn’t mention that my own pack would probably join me. I didn’t say that Bull, Red, and others might throw in on my side, if things came to it. I kept them all out of this. This was my fight. “I will take those odds. Will you?”
Drum scoffed. “You think that much of yourself, do you, new kid?” He stepped out onto the sand to make a point, clearing the gates and the tunnel that led back to our rooms.
I was done talking. Dog’s hackles raised. He put his head low and emitted a growl. I stepped forward, crouching. My fingers curled into claws, and I bared my teeth. The back of my neck tingled, hair standing up. My vision narrowed and every muscle in my body coiled tightly like a serpent ready to strike.
Drum looked unsure of himself for a moment, but he’d talked himself into this. His dog, Bear, led the way as always, leaving the scared little boy a half-step behind his beast. Still, that beast weighed nearly as much as Dog and I put together.
With a nod, I sent Dog to my left, circling around to the right flank, where Drum stood beside his dog, casting looks back at his pack, wondering why they weren’t exactly jumping in to help out. Had I been able to look at myself, I might not have wondered why.
I didn’t wait. I just struck. Drum had exactly enough time to open his eyes wider in surprise as my fist came sailing in, striking him across his side of the face. He cried out and stumbled back into his dog, who snarled and turned to face me. Except, that’s what Dog was waiting for. He was on Bear’s back in an instant, snapping and snarling as he bit into the thick fur and heavy skin of the larger dog’s neck.
I’d learned that when you faced an opponent that was larger or stronger, you never gave them a chance to counterattack. We never let up, trying to keep Bear from getting a good opportunity to strike. Soon enough, we were a tangle of fists, feet, teeth, snarls, and howls.
I felt claws scratch across my forearm as I delivered a heavy punch to Bear’s flank, staggering him. I rounded to smash my knee into Drum’s gut as he tried to control my other flailing arm, going for some sort of restraint hold on my arm that never came of anything.
Drum vomited up the meal he had been so proud of. His spew of food sailed past my shoulder to land on the dirt. While Drum was doubled over, I jumped onto his dog, tackling his rear legs out from under him.
Dog and I tore at the larger dog. I had a mouth full of fur and blood. I heard howls of pain and snarls like you only heard when dogs were seriously trying to hurt each other. The massive dog yelped and shook us off, trying to get away. Tail between his legs, he rounded on us and backed away, baring his teeth defensively.
I was greeted with a wallop upside the head that sent me staggering. I landed headfirst in the same, feeling grit scrape across my face as the sand entered my eyes, nose, and mouth all at once. Dog howled and attacked someone else. Teeth latched onto my ankle and bit deep.
I clawed the sand from my eyes, wound up, and kicked at the blurry shape with my other foot. I connected with my foot, sensing something give. I’d probably hurt the dog, but I was beyond caring. Spitting sand and blood, I regained my feet and faced off against more of Pack Chahar.
Nose, with his hound, and Mongrel, with his brown mutt, had joined the fight against me. Two more members of Chahar were engaged with what looked to be Legs and Tiny. Blurry as things were, I thought I saw Face standing to the side, apparently trying to stay out of it.
I threw my head back and howled. Dog howled back. I felt a shudder in my arms, and a sharp pain in my fingertips. I glanced down at my fingers, blinking away the sand and dizziness. My fingertips had elongated into sharpened points, human fingernails giving way to canine claws. My mouth, too, ached, and my eyes felt strange.
I did not take the time to revel in the changes. Instead, I shook my head again and took a menacing step toward Nose and Mongrel, whose dogs barked and backed away from me. Gone was the pain in my ankle. Gone was the stinging scrape on my arm. I felt nothing. I felt amazing. I’d never felt so powerful before, and these two were going to feel my wrath. I’d feel my teeth on their throats, my claws in their flesh.
I launched myself into the air, leaping as I’d never been able to before. Had I been in the streets, this sort of jump would have carried me across a wide alley, from one rooftop to another. In the sand, it carried my fist into Nose’s face. It crunched wetly.
My next two steps carried me over to Mongrel. I drove my fist into his chest and then shredded his shirt with my claws. Blood blossomed where my claws crossed. Dog worried at their animals, his ferocity matching my own. It was enough to keep them off my flanks.
Tiny and Legs were holding their own against the long-haired dog from Chahar and his master, as well as the sleek, grey dog that filled out their team. Killer was doing his best to keep Drum’s dog away from me while I finished these two.
Mongrel held up his arms to protect his face, so I clawed the backs of his hands and arms before driving my foot into his middle. He tumbled backward a half-dozen paces, crumpling into the sand. Nose tried to run, but another powerful leap carried me onto his back. I stomped his face into the ground and turned to find Drum.
Drum had finished vomiting and was trying to crawl away. I strode powerfully over to him, hearing voices, but ignoring them. With Dog by my side, I reached down and picked Drum up by the scruff of his neck. Snarling, I regarded his puke-stained face as he babbled and cried into my eyes.
I stared at my reflection in his eyes, seeing yellow. I blinked at that.
My eyes were yellow, and my nose had reshaped into a poor semblance of a dog’s muzzle, betraying sharp teeth beneath my lips, which had split on top, as with a dog’s mouth. I did not recognize myself, but I did not care.
Dog slavered beside me, blood-tinged saliva dripping into the sand. He looked larger and more imposing than I had ever seen. Dog warned Bear not to approach, but the scared beast kept attempting to save his master and get past Killer and his fighting dog.
“Go!” Someone called. I cocked my head to the side, ears twitching.
“Go!” I heard my name once more, but my thoughts were thick.
“Go! That’s enough!” This time I turned my head back toward the north gates. Bull stood there, face a mixture of horror and concern.
“You need to stop this!” It was as close as he would come to pleading.
I was aware of clanking and the raising of the south gate. A troop of auburn-clad guards filed out, led by Green. I threw Drum aside, casting him at the feet of Nokomi’s statue. I kicked him in the ribs and left him in a heap at Nokomi’s feet. Then I walked around the statues to face Green and his guardsmen.
My blood was up. I was not afraid of a man and his six soldiers. My ears pricked at the sounds of crossbows being ratcheted into readiness in the upper gallery, at least a eight of them.
“That will be enough, Go.” Green held out his hand for me to stop, to stop all of this.
“He speaks, finally.” I laughed. “Isn’t this what you wanted?” It was hard to form the words with my mouth. I was not used to talking with such sharp teeth in my mouth and lips formed so strangely.
Green motioned with his hands, and the guards fanned out. A single guard set himself on either side of Green, while a pair slid to both my left and right. The semicircle hedged me in with halberds, sharp spears with glinting axe blades on their lengths.
“You wanted a beast. You treated us like beasts. Now you have one.” I regarded my own hands, disgusted and yet fascinated by what I had become.
“Stop this now and return to yourself.”
“I don’t know how.” I answered. “Maybe I don’t want to.”
That much was true. I’d never felt so powerful. My heart pounded in my chest, and with each hammer of that muscle, I could feel my muscles tense and ready for battle. My senses were stronger than ever before. I could smell the fear on these men. I could smell everything they’d eaten that day. I could smell a wife’s perfume on one of them, a lingering trace on his neck. I could count the pores on Green’s face. I smelled a coming storm in the air, a hint of ozone that spoke of lightning and seasonal rains. I could taste the blood of dog and man on my lips, and I knew the difference.
I felt unstoppable.
“Go!” Bull called once more. “Stop!”
“Yes, listen to your friend. Stop now, and we can get you calmed down and back to yourself. You just need to stop.” Green might have spoken evenly and calmly, but as I tilted my head, I could hear the excitement in his pulse. I could smell the eagerness on his skin. He wanted me to go too far. He wanted to see what I could do.
My thoughts raced. There were so many things I could do. I knew I could get my hands on Green before they put a crossbow bolt in me. I just knew I could clear those steps and snap his neck. They might hit me once or twice, but I also knew I could jump up to the second floor and kill at least half of those men with crossbows before they could reload.
But then what? What would become of me? How would I make it back to Nokomi?
In the space of seconds, I weighed my options. I felt heartbeats coming up beside me. I opened my nostrils… Legs. Killer. Tiny. My pack.
“Go, if you want to do this, we will.” Tiny announced, his pocket-sized pup ready to go to war beside him.
“No, you idiots!” Green hissed. “Stand down! Go back!”
The guards suddenly didn’t look so convinced. Six on one hadn’t seemed so bad. Now it was six on four, with four dogs helping.
Green looked about the say something, when his eyes flashed with rage. More heartbeats were coming up behind me. Face and Red were joining us. Counting dogs, that was twelve of us now, and I was worth nearly as much as all of these men put together.
I smiled at him. “What now, Green?”
Green shook his head and signaled with a hand. I knew that I was his target, so I wanted to move away from my pack. Eight crossbows sang out. I sprang forward and to the side, trying to put my body behind a guard. Bolts whistled past my face and others stabbed into the sand near my feet. Others had better aim. I felt a sting rip through my thigh, I stumbled, but my momentum carried me into the surprised guard. His halberd blade sliced along my ribs, but I drove him to the ground.
Dog harassed the next guard, but was struggling to get past his halberd. Howls and more fighting broke out, but with me down, my fellows were unable or unwilling to push the issue.
I started to pick myself up to move to the next foe, but I felt faint, more than I should have. My vision began to swim even as I listened for the telltale sounds of crossbows being reloaded. I stumbled forward, and, hearing more shouts from my pack, I held up a hand for them to freeze.
I could only remember a few times in my life when I’d ever felt such a sensation before... I’d felt it when I’d been sick as a child and deep in a fever. I’d felt it when I’d arrived here at the Kennel, waking up in a fog. But the first time I really remembered such a sensation was when I’d had my scalp ripped and Nokomi had let her blood mingle with my own.
I don’t know why it was this very moment that I realized how important that moment had been. Nokomi’s blood has mixed with my own. Dog had licked it after, and had in turn licked his own wounds from the desert cat. Our blood had all comingled, the three of us. That’s why we were pack, we three. It was in our blood.
Nokomi. I needed to get back to her. But how? Dying now was not the way.
I staggered away, aware of more shouting and of guards hedging me in with their weapons. They drove me, and I was too delirious to prevent it. Maybe I even let them. The east gate opened behind me. Dog and I were forced into the tunnel that led to the yard.
I vaguely recall being pushed into the yard beyond the short tunnel, beyond the watching eyes of the packs. Then, as I began to collapse, surrounded by guards, I heard the clank and clatter of a cage being opened. Then it all went dark, and I was left dreaming of a smell, the smell of whatever had been on those crossbow bolts and those halberds.
I wished that smell had been Nokomi’s perfume instead.
For the rest of the week, Green shadowed my lessons. What he learned, I could not tell. He seemed most interested in my lessons with Red and Blue. He was only briefly apparent during my lesson with Grey, but he could have been watching longer. I surmised that his interests were more in my martial skills and interactions with other packs, rather than my etiquette.
Green met with each teacher after our lessons for a debriefing. He was even visible once on the walls when we were in the yard, watching the whole lot of us go about our business after eating our morning meals. I doubt he learned much there, as most of us stood around, urinated on bushes, or hunted for stones.
Hunting for the perfect stones had become something of a pastime for many of the boys. At least eight boys now had their own set of four rocks, all marked and decorated for uniqueness. Small games or practice occurred almost nightly now, in preparation for the weekend tournaments. It was certainly taking off.
Twice during the week, Green also toured our north wing. He went room to room, inspecting our living conditions and the ways in which we interacted. He had conversations with two of the boys who were practicing the stone game in an empty room, asking about the rules and the game’s origins. All things seemed to point back to me, but he did not speak to me directly, not even when he found us practicing holds and throws under Bull’s tutelage. He silently watched us practice for the better part of our lesson and then vanished just as silently.
If much seemed to stay the same, in spite of Green’s mysterious presence, other changes were upon us. There was a flurry of activity on the first morning of Panj’s second weekend there. We were released into the gallery for our morning meal, only to find four statues, where before there had only been one. Larger-than-life renditions of the Empress and their two daughters now flanked the Emperor, much like in the portrait we saw each time we went to Blue’s class.
We all stopped and stared, all twenty-some of us. For some of us, like Pack Yek especially, they’d walked into this gallery and looked at one statue for over a year. Then, without warning, there were four. It would take some getting used to.
The Emperor had been rendered as a powerful man with a commanding expression. His hand resting on the hilt of a curved sword belted at his hip. He wore a conical head wrap, much like when I’d met him. They’d done a good job creating his hard expression. He seemed like an imposing man.
The Empress was only up to his shoulder, smaller than him by a head or more. Her hair was swept back into a scarf, and jewels of cut glass had been set into web-like pattern across her hair, so they twinkled even in the morning light. She was pretty, with an open expression to her face and a kindly set to her cheekbones and jawline.
The two daughters were of different sizes, each slightly smaller than their mother. I’d never seen the older sister before, but I assumed it was a faithful recreation, as the Emperor’s and Nokomi’s statues seemed very accurate. The sister had a narrower face than Nokomi, with eyes and a face shape the looked intelligent and thoughtful. She was half a handspan taller than her younger sister, and slimmer of build.
While the other three statues were masterful recreations of their subjects, it was Nokomi’s statue that captured my real attention. It was breathtaking. I felt my forehead burn. Dog emitted a low keening howl beside me, as if he, too, felt the burn in my scalp. I blinked away tears, the fire of my scalp stinging my eyes.
“Nokomi.” I whispered.
There were no explanations to the new additions to our gallery. There was no ceremony to declare their purpose. There were only the four statues and silence. Then there were the guards dumping our food onto the sand, food that no one seemed to have no immediate interest in, which was likely a first.
Dog and I went forward to the statue of our friend, ignoring the other three. Dog sniffed at it, while I placed hands upon it. It was not her, but it was the closest thing we had to her. At some point, I separated from the statue and knelt beside Dog. We waited for the burning in my scalp and our souls to subside.
I was unaware of what others thought of my behavior until I looked up. Everyone was still frozen, watching us. I cast a look around at my fellows. There was no judgement there for the most part, only surprise and confusion. They had no knowledge of my past, none of them except for Bull, and he had a look of concern in his eyes, which kept shifting to the southern side of the gallery. I didn’t need to look over my shoulder to know who was there watching me, studying my reaction.
Shaking my head, I walked away from the statue, forsaking food. Killer grabbed my arm, nodding toward the piles of food that people were now starting toward.
“Eat, if you want. I will have none of it. I will eat like a man, or not at all.”
Killer looked torn between his stomach and his loyalty. He was a creature of habit and routine, as were we all. Legs sighed, and Tiny grumbled, but they followed me back into our wing of the building. Bull and his pack hesitated, many of them already having food in hand. Pack Se followed Panj back into our rooms.
Seeing this, Pack Yek also joined us, leaving only Chahar and Do to fight over the pile of food. Red from Pack Do joined us in our protest, eliciting shouts from Scar, his pack leader. A few moments later, Face also joined us, the boy with the wrinkly dog from Pack Chahar. Drum’s curses and screams made it clear that it was not a move that he approved of.
The members of Pack Yek filed in past our door, each stopping to nod to our group. They were with us, surprisingly. They’d never made any show of solidarity about anything before. They kept to themselves to eat, bathe, and play. They were their own entity, and yet I had their support.
Drum made sure to strut back in after he’d eaten his fill, burping and covered in food stains. “Quite a feast out there today, boys.” He eyed the six of us, Face, Red, and Pack Panj. Packs Yek and Se had gone back to their own rooms.
“If you like being fed like a beast.” Tiny replied snarkily. His little dog snarled at Drum and his oversized dog.
Drum picked at his teeth and laughed. “Don’t think I could eat another bite.”
“Go play in the yard.” Killer said, waving them off.
“Oh, didn’t you know? They didn’t open the yard today. Thanks for that!” Drum shouted.
We all looked at each other in alarm. That had never happened before. No matter how much we ate or how much we’d left before, not that it had ever been much left behind, they had always opened the east gate for us to run in the yard. It was part of the deal, weekend or not.
“I guess that’s what happens when half of you lose your minds, follow this new guy, and scorn our masters’ good will.” Drum shook his head at the lot of us. “Maybe you’ll all be a little smarter tomorrow and let this fool go hungry by himself.”
Killer stood up, ready to fight. Tiny and Legs were up beside him in an instant. I pulled them back down. “It’s not worth it. Let him do it. We’ll see how well that goes.”
Drum laughed again and strolled off, leaning backward to let his full belly show all the more. He let his eyes rest for a long moment on Face, the traitor of his group, and then left. The rest of Chahar followed their leader back to their room.
“You can stay with us, if you want.” I offered. There was the unspoken offer of membership, something that would come with time, if he wanted it.
Face looked me in the eyes and shook his head. “I don’t know. I don’t like my pack, but it is my pack. It’s been my home for months. We don’t change packs.”
“We don’t skip meals and play games together, either.”
“There is that. Still, I should go deal with them. It won’t be easy.”
“They don’t deserve your loyalty.” Killer commented.
“Maybe not, but I will offer it once more. If they turn me aside, I will be back. It’s not like I’ll have any other options.” He grinned, but it was the expression of a boy that expected trouble and likely pain for his defiance.
“Good luck.” We all wished him. He nodded and departed.
Bull walked into our room next, wearing a serious look. He crossed his arms and regarded me like a disappointed parent might a disobedient child. “You’ve made your next move.”
“It was too early.”
“Was it? Is it ever too early to demand to be treated like a person?”
“You know that’s not what I mean.”
“Tell me, if were soldiers in the Emperor’s army, would they feed us scraps thrown in the dirt?”
Bull smiled derisively. “Go, it’s not that easy. We are a special case. There is no army like us. Never has a group of Old Blood been incorporated in the forces of the New Blood. We are remnants of an old people. Their ways are not ours, and now they seek to use our gifts to their advantage.”
“I know nothing of that. I just want to be fed food that does not feel and look like garbage thrown aside for a creature. I am a man. I wish to eat like one.”
Just then, someone came running in, shouting, “Chahar ruined all the leftover food! They smashed it into the dirt and covered it in filth!”
Apparently, someone had been hungry enough to check to see what had become of the leftovers. Chahar wasn’t going to let anyone change their minds. If we’d skipped out on food when it was first offered, we didn’t deserve any of it. Chahar had ruined any chance to go back for it later. There would be no eating until the baskets arrived this evening. More shouting erupted in the hallways because of this, arguing broke out, and fighting up and down the halls.
I didn’t feel like a fight just then. It wouldn’t amount to much more than the beatings we gave each other in our classes, and the same feuds would just crop up again later.
I walked off. Dog trailed behind me. I walked with a purpose. I don’t know why. I didn’t want to see the ruined and soiled food, but there was nowhere else to go to be alone with my thoughts, so I went to the gallery.
Immediately upon walking out into the gallery, my eyes went to the statues. They dominated the plain room, with nothing but walls, pillars, and sand to look at otherwise, but my eyes went to Nokomi’s statue almost instinctively anyway. What I saw left me dismayed.
Food had been smeared across Nokomi’s face. Tomato or some other red fruit had been smeared across her fine features. Even worse, urine stains streaked down her statue, discoloring it from the knees down in several places. From where I stood, with nostrils flared, I recognized one scent immediately as Drum’s, but apparently several dogs and other boys, likely the whole of Pack Chahar had relieved themselves upon her statue.
The smell of dung wafted my way as well. The food had been gathered into a pile in the sand and feces were piled upon the mound. The whole gallery smelled of waste and disrespect, and my forehead burned horribly.
These acts would not go unpunished.
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.
National Novel Writing Month 2019: The Emperor's Dogs