“My dog!” Tiny jolted awake, gasping for air, reaching for something that wasn’t there.
I grasped his hands, and his glazed eyes sought out mine, only focusing with effort. “I’m here, Tiny We’re all here.”
Tiny’s eyes swam as he tried to look around our room. He acted as one drunk, or one who’d been struck severely upon the head. He was dazed, not quite right. I imagine that nothing smelled, looked, or sounded right. He’d spent his life sharing the senses of a dog, and now he was limited to human senses. It was like losing half of yourself, and that didn’t even account for the pain of losing L.D.
“Little Dog…” He whispered, grimacing and putting his head back down.
“Dead.” I said softly. There was no use lying to him. There were no words that could hide what had happened.
Tiny nodded, tears running from eyes squeezed shut. He writhed in agony, as if we’d twisted a knife in his heart. “Drum.” He could barely say the name.
I nodded. “Yes, he did this. We have to do something.”
“Kill him.” Tiny begged, looking at me through red, tear-streaked eyes.
“I will.” I vowed. Even if no one else would, I would take the blame for it. I would seek out Drum’s death, no matter the cost to myself.
Dog twitched his ears at me and nosed my arm. Then, he got up and settled in against Tiny, as if he could be a stand-in for L.D. Tiny’s hands clutched at Dog’s fur, and he seemed to relax. At that, Tiny rested his head back down and fell back into something that was not sleep. It was more like the rest of one near death, one whose body knew it was best to try to heal, and that could not be done if he was awake.
I looked to Killer, Face, and Legs. They were the other members of our pack. We stood together. How could we not give our wounded friend what he wanted? “We need to kill him.” I said, asking any of them to disagree, but knowing they would not.
It eased my heart when I found no such look upon their faces. Instead, they all clutched their dogs closely, imagining that it could have very well been them instead of Tiny that was suffering this fate. We sat in our dim room, huddled around our half-dead friend, and there was no escaping the horrible thing that had happened to him.
“If it were any of us, we’d want the same, right?” I asked, and they all nodded soberly.
“How do we convince the rest of them?” Legs asked. “We said we’d get everyone to approve. Otherwise, even if we want Drum dead, it won’t matter.”
“Drum wants himself dead. He has lost everything. He is ready to die. He will find a way, no matter what we do.” I surmised. “That is why he did this. He only needed a target, and Tiny was the closest or easiest one.”
“Why couldn’t he just have attacked the Emperor? Those guards would have killed him before he hurt anyone but himself.” Face shook his head, his forehead wrinkling in consternation.
“We can wish a thousand things, but it won’t change what has already happened.” Killer replied curtly. He was not one to mince words. “We will make them all see what needs to be done.”
Killer let his words sink in. Then, to me, he said, “It is your time to lead. You must make them see. You must make them agree.”
I knew he was right. This was my time to pull them all together. I had to forge them into one pack. “Call them, then, my friends. We need at least one person from each pack.” I looked to each of them and gave them their assignments, “Face, you can go get Mongrel from Chahar. Legs, go get Bull from Se. Killer, you can go get Scar from Do. Then, you can all go get someone or everyone from Yek.”
“And what about Yellow-Eyes or the Emperor? They need to be here, don’t they?” Legs asked.
I shook my head. “Not yet. They will be, but I would like to show them what we all decide. I don’t want them hearing our decision until it’s final. You heard what the Emperor said. He needs to see us come together and be united in this. Otherwise… I don’t know what will become of us.”
They nodded, leaving me with Tiny. They went off down the halls to gather the representatives from the other packs. They would see firsthand what was left of Tiny. Then they would agree to letting me execute Drum.
They had to see it my way.
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.
Our week of captivity was both horribly dull and extremely relaxing. Dog and I used it to heal and think. The cage had been removed, now that I had returned to my human form, but the room was still quite small, only a few paces on a side, with nothing but two narrow slits in the stone walls for light and fresh air. Had I not been used to living in small places, I would have found the whole room quite claustrophobic.
We even played a bit of stones, or I did, at least. Lacking stones, I chipped away at some chicken bones Dog had crunched up with his teeth to make something approximating the four stones I’d need to play with. He enjoyed the bones. The trick was to keep them away from him once I’d filed them down into the right shapes. With no one else to play with, I even came up with several new rules variations.
Mostly, though, I rested, spending time alone and lazing about with Dog. It was something we’d scarcely been able to do since coming to this place. Solitary creatures, except in the company of each other, we were not used to being around so many people. We were used to the quiet of each other’s company – nothing more. So, forced though it was, this was a welcome return to the roots of our life and relationship.
All the more, it reinforced why we were here. We were here to reunite with the lost member of our pack, Nokomi. Dog and I needed to heal, get stronger, and play by the rules here until we could be with Nokomi once more. Almost anything was worth enduring for that. Almost.
So we slept, ate, tended our wounds, and healed. I’m not sure how it was with regular people, those without the Old Blood running in their veins, but Dog and I were fast healers. Maybe the bit of New Blood we’d shared with Nokomi made our blood even stronger. Skin and muscle knitted, leaving only scars where blades, claws, and crossbows had scarred us. Blackened bruises faded to ugly yellow in just days. By the end of the week, scars aside, the two of us looked unscathed, as if we’d not just fought a battle against a whole pack and a dozen guards.
We heard a clank and the door swung open on day eight, an exact week since we’d been thrown in this cage. Tomorrow, it’d be back to day one and Red’s lessons. Would anyone in Chahar dare face off against us? I smiled at that and thanked my guards cordially as they opened the door. They gave me space, standing like taut bowstrings, ready to spring if needed. I gave them no cause.
Exiting my cell for the first time in the week, I made sure to take note of its location. Even flanked by four soldiers, Dog and I were able to puzzle out that this room was in the south wing, toward the eastern side. Much like the west wing had several rooms and halls, the southern wing also had its own halls and chambers, in addition to the towers and the larger part of the south wing that we’d not been permitted to go through. I surmised that the cell I’d been in was not far from the first room I’d been in when we’d first arrived. The smells were similar, now that I’d grown used to them.
We were ushered down the hall and taken out into the tunnel that led to the south gate, which opened for us. How odd it was to be going through this tunnel this way. Normally, it was the teachers and guards who came through this way. Just a week ago, Green had led his men out this very gate to stop me. Now, we returned, defeated but not beaten. In fact, we might have been more determined than ever.
I sniffed the air and shaded my eyes from the sun as we entered the gallery. It felt like a dream, that day a week ago. Had all of that really happened? Had we fought and defeated so many of Chahar’s boys and dogs? Had we really challenged Green and his auburn guards? The beast had been hard to hold back, almost without reason. I’d need to learn to restrain it.
My leg throbbed where I’d been shot by the crossbow as we crossed the sand. Fresh footprints had covered the spots where I’d bled, but I could still smell it. I could smell where my blood had soaked into these sands. This sand, this place, they were a part of me now.
I looked then to the statues of the Emperor and his family. All four of them were pristine, cleaned of even bird spatters. I smiled at that and paused to regard Nokomi’s statue. A careful clearing of a throat urged me forward once more. They were hesitant to bother me, but it was fine. I’d seen all I needed to.
Boys were waiting for me just inside the north gates. They must have heard the south gates open, and they were waiting for me. I could smell them before the doors opened. I knew their scents, and I could smell the shifting emotions upon them. I wanted to see their eyes, not just smell their presences. That would be the truest showing of their thoughts on me. There were things they could not hide in their eyes.
When the doors swung open, Tiny threw himself at me. He wrapped me up with a stiff embrace, laughing. Dog danced at my side happily, standing up to get in on the affection. The guards shooed Tiny away, nudging at him a bit roughly, but he backed away, grinning as L.D. harried their ankles, all bark and terror in a small package.
Legs, Face, and Killer waited just inside the gates. Others were visible down the halls, but they kept to their packs as I was escorted back to Panj’s room. With me safely returned to my room, the guards vanished, closing the gates behind them.
Eight sets of eyes stared at me as I sat down at, of all things, a table. It was a kneeling table, in the fashion that had become common. I’d eaten beside one once with Adish and Barid. People knelt or sat on cushions with their legs folded around a low table. It was how people took their meals, and it was how we were apparently taking our morning meal.
Four boys and four dogs all regarded Dog and me with expressions ranging between apprehension and admiration. They were worried for me and because of me, but they were also proud of what I had done. I could smell it on them.
“You’re back!” Tiny declared emphatically, not that he hadn’t already greeted me.
“Yes, and it seems that things have changed.” I rapped my knuckles resoundingly upon the table.
They pushed the basket my way. It was almost as nicely provisioned as a weekday meal. I snagged a chunk of cheese, a handful of olives, and some boiled quail eggs from the basket. Dog inhaled two of the eggs while I chewed the savory, salty olives. It was a pleasant change from the boiled chicken and plain bread I’d been given in my cell, with nothing but water to wash it down.
All the while, they stared at me, examining me, looking for some signs of the beast I’d been. “Say something.” I begged. Their stares were tiresome.
“We just… well… we just thought they were going to kill you that night.” Legs finally answered after a long moment of them looking at each other, searching for words.
“I’d not have been surprised if they had. I gave them reasons.” I certainly had. I chewed an egg quickly and sighed. “I want to thank you all for trying to help me. It was my fight, and you didn’t have to involve yourselves.”
“We are a pack, Go. It’s what we do.” Killer said simply.
“Besides, we all hate Chahar.” Legs declared, then looking embarrassed upon suddenly remembering that Face was among us.
I felt a pang. Dog and I shared a look. We were a pack, he and I. These guys were my pack of convenience, but it was a manufactured pack. It was not natural, as what Dog and I had with Nokomi. Still, they’d been willing to risk their lives for me. I needed to acknowledge that and respect it.
I met their gazes. “I know, but when someone does something as foolish as I did, I don’t want to think you’re all throwing your lives away for the sake of that bond, not if I don’t deserve it.”
“Why would you not deserve it? You stood up to Chahar. You beat that fool bloody and tore apart half of their pack all on your own!” From the pride in Tiny’s eyes, the way his little body swelled twice its size with admiration, it was hard to not love these guys.
“What I did was wrong. Not the Chahar part. Drum deserved it, along with any that helped him.” I grinned. “But the part with the guards was wrong. I attacked a superior foe with no hope of victory. I might have killed one or two, but for what? My attack on Chahar was justified. With the guards, it was just bloodlust. It was stupid of me. So, if you want to replace me as head of this pack, I would accept that. I don’t need to lead, if I’m leading you into danger without good reasons. I would remain amongst you though, if I could.”
“No.” Legs answered. “Just, no.”
“No.” Tiny agreed, nodding and crossing his arms.
“You are our leader.” Killer insisted. “You have been since the first day. That will not change just because you bit off more than you can chew.”
“Besides, look what has come of it? We get fed like people now. We even have furniture…” Tiny grinned.
“I think Grey had something to do with that.” Face suggested, indicating the napkins, which were of grey cloth.
I looked at him. His wrinkly pup sprawled next to him, regarding me with calm eyes. Both still wore signs of the bruises and beatings Chahar had given them. My own wounds had healed faster than theirs. They needed our pack, these two.
“If I am to be your leader still, then I want to welcome Face to our pack truly. It is their loss, and our gain. Is there any here that won’t have him?”
They all looked at me as if I were crazy. “Good. Welcome to Pack Panj, Face. We will not let you down.” I tried to sound official, but it just felt foolish.
Nevertheless, he nodded seriously. He stood, bowed at the waist, and barked. “I will not let you down either, brothers.”
He settled himself back down on a cushion, and we all felt a bit silly. We broke out in a good-natured laugh. When it ended, I think a few of us had to wipe tears from our eyes. Face was a natural fit to our group. We were lucky to have him.
“Now, if only we could get a few more on our side. We’d be as big as Yek.” Tiny said thoughtfully, breaking the silence.
“Yeah? Do you have eyes on our next recruit?” I asked, jokingly.
“Fire.” Killer answered immediately. Apparently, they’d given this some thought.
“You’re serious.” I replied.
“Serious as murder.” He grinned. Killer was never long on words.
“What happens if we convert all of them to Panjies?” The four of us frowned at Tiny’s word choice. “Panjites? Panjerines?” He tried a few more words. None of them worked. We all burst out laughing once more.
“When the whole army is Panj, we will worry about a proper name.” I replied when I got my breath back. “Until then, welcome to Panj, Face!”
“And welcome back, Go!” Legs shouted.
“And then, they were five.” Killer said with a satisfied smile. His dog barked agreement, which got the other dogs all riled up.
What followed were laughs, food, and more time together. It felt like a pack in all but the very deepest ways. I’d misjudged these boys. They were solid allies. They, at least, would not turn me aside.
I still didn’t know what the other packs thought of me. I worried about Bull and Pack Se. We needed them, but I couldn’t make them trust me just because I wanted them to. I’d have to prove myself in the next few weeks, months, or however long it took.
And there was what Kalb had said, about them wanting what I had: the ability to turn myself into a beast. I could see it in their eyes, even in my pack mates. They wanted to ask, but couldn’t come out and ask just yet. They would wait for me to share my secret, as if it was something I could just explain away and teach, like a game of stones.
I doubted it was.
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.
The worst thing about being in a prison was being left to your own thoughts with nothing to do. On days when we had classes, we were kept too busy and left with too little time to consider our situation. Our days off, which were days seven and eight of the week, we were left to our own devices and our thoughts, many of which weren’t very pleasant.
In our first three days, we’d met with Chahar in both Red and Blue’s classes, and we’d had our solo day with Grey. We were allowed to keep the spare clothes Grey and his team had given us. They were to be kept separate and only worn at his classes. The rest of the time we were in the Kennel, we had to dress in whatever we’d worn at the time of our capture. For most of us, we owned little more than rags. Again, we were faced with our dual natures: that of being wild beasts and that of being men (when it was necessary).
Day four brought us back to Red’s class. Once more, we fought, grappled, did exercises, and participated in weapons training. This time, we had to face off Pack Do, which I’d learned was the second oldest group of recruits in the building. There were only four of them, as with our pack. But, they all had another year of training than us, and, with their scarred leader, the four of them were supposedly nearly on par with Pack Yek’s eight members. Pound-for-pound, this was the fiercest, strongest pack in the Kennel.
They mopped the floor with us. It wasn’t even close. We were all beaten severely in every exercise. With the control they had over their bodies and the precision and speed with which they attacked, they were unbeatable as we currently stood. Even Killer, strong was he was, could not quite keep up with them. Legs and Tiny took the worst beatings of the day, and my own treatment was only slightly better, possibly because of the reputation I’d gathered after my first lessons with both Red and Blue.
I saw a little disappointment in the eyes of my fellow pack mates as I was handed defeat after defeat. They clearly expected me to be some sort of unstoppable force, and that was something I’d probably brought upon myself. It made for a quiet dinner that night. We took turns massaging our hurts with the liniments and bandages that were in the bottom of our basket.
The next day we were back to Blue, again with Pack Do. We fared a little better in the King of the Hill game Blue prepared for us, if only a little. The four of us were placed atop a pyramid made of wooden pallets and covered with dirt. The pyramid was only a few steps high, not even as tall as I was. The four of us perched atop it, each pack member guarding the approach from their direction.
Pack Do logically picked on Tiny’s side of the pyramid, seeing how small he and L.D. were. When we shifted to help, Scar would attack from the distracted side, and we’d fail. Knocked from the top of the pyramid, the four of us would see our roles reversed. Now, we had to be the aggressors. Only, Scar’s team was far harder to take down than we were.
Scar’s second-in-command, a red-haired boy aptly named Fire, was nearly his equal. He had a long-haired dog with a reddish coat that matched his own locks of reddish-orange hair. The dog wasn’t nearly as aggressive as Scar’s black beast, but the red dog was large enough that only Killer’s dog could counter him. Tiny and Legs were little help in this exercise. We tried baiting our opponents down with L.D.’s tenaciousness and Legs’ speed, but they weren’t going to fall for such obvious ploys. Headlong attacks, even focused on one side of the pyramid, often failed. We just weren’t strong enough.
Again, we endured the shame of failure. We ate in silence that night, too. Thankfully, there were more medicines and creams in the basket that night. They were more welcome than the sweet treats at the bottom of the basket, which seemed to lose their savor in the face of back-to-back defeats.
Day six brought us back to Red for a lesson in battle against Pack Se. The five of them with Bull, their leader with the bulldog, were gracious opponents. They taught as they fought, they helped you up when you fell, and they congratulated you on what you did well. Losing to them did not feel like losing. They also didn’t try to hurt you like Packs Do and Chahar did.
The week came to an end, and we were left alone for two whole days. Two days of wallowing in self-pity and boredom. I made our pack clean up our room and go through at least some of the grooming exercises we’d been taught. We might not feel well, but we could at least try not to look as miserable as we all felt. We straightened our room, shaking out blankets and organizing our clothes on the small rack that had appeared in the corner of the room after the day we’d had Grey’s class. A similar rack was in the corner of each other room, Grey’s gift to each pack.
For lack of better things to do, I explored the other empty rooms. All three of them looked basically the same as our own. Would they be expanding into these rooms? Would other batches of boys be forced into this routine? I hoped not, and yet there was nothing we could do to prevent it. If there were more boys and dogs to be found, they would be brought here. They would be subjected to the same treatment and training as we were. That thought made me heartsick. Dog whined and looked up at me. Did he know what these rooms would become?
I stood in the empty room closest to ours, looking around at the bare walls. It was illuminated only by the lonely window on the wall, a portal not large enough for anyone to slip through, although L.D. would fit easily enough. The only thing was, there was no reason for the dog to escape without its master. A pet dog, like I’d seen folks have in the city, might run away on its own, but our dogs were not pets. I doubted that L.D. would have lasted long running out in the wilderness on his own anyway. A hawk or something would gobble him up before he made it halfway to the city.
Sighing, I decided to start working through some of the exercises we’d learned. We had time, and I didn’t want next week to go as this one had. When I’d worked up a sweat, I felt ready for a greater challenge.
“Killer!” I shouted. I was angry, mostly at myself. I was to blame for being weak.
His head popped through the arched doorway a moment later, his dog’s head popping through below his. “Go?”
He blinked at me once or twice and then nodded. He rolled his neck on his large shoulders to loosen up, and then walked over to lock arms with me. We began to wrestle, throwing each other around the room. He was stronger, but I was much faster. He won more matches than I did, but I knew I wasn’t going to get better without learning to fight someone stronger than me.
Drawn by the noise, Legs and Tiny gathered around to watch. A little more hesitantly, they took up wrestling as well, practicing what they’d learned against each other. They were perhaps a bit wiser than us; the floor was not so forgiving to be thrown upon, so they gathered extra blankets and used those to pad their falls.
Bull showed up at some point, I’m not exactly sure when. We’d been so into our matches that we probably didn’t see him watching us from the hall with his dog sitting across his feet.
“Do you want help?” He asked when we finally noticed him.
I looked to my fellows, and they nodded as one. So it was that Bull became something of a fourth trainer for us. Strong, patient, and able, he was a good teacher. Scar came by to scoff at us and mock our feeble efforts, but we said nothing. The next time we met, I wanted to give him a greater challenge. Bull might help get us there.
“Thank you.” I said to Bull when the five of us finally collapsed in exhaustion.
“You are welcome. These days pass slowly. There is too much time and not enough to do.” Bull said wistfully. “I am glad to have something to do.”
“I think they forget that we do not have families or any entertainment. The guards, they probably all have families to go home to. They have markets to visit. They have things to do.” Legs wore a forlorn expression that his skinny dog somehow managed to emulate.
I had an inkling, the beginnings of an idea. I thought back to how the boys in the alleys used to play, silly little games to pass the time. Was that something we could do? “Maybe we need something to do then. Training is good, but tomorrow, maybe we can do something fun.”
Bull smiled at the idea. “My pack and I would like that. Right now, I am ready for a long soak and some relaxation before our meal.”
“If we didn’t have a class today, will they still bring us a basket?” Tiny wondered aloud with more than a little alarm. No one wanted to go brush sand from our food for the second time in one day. No food would have been even worse.
“I forgot, this is your first time on a weekend. You’ll get a basket, but it won’t be anything special. It’s usually plain, simple food.”
“At least we don’t have to fight for it.” Legs remarked.
“There is that.” Bull nodded. “I will see you all later. He bowed stiffly from the waist adding a low growl, and then he vanished down the hall.
No one said anything, but we all realized that he’d just afforded us the same respect that he would have for the Emperor or his other instructors. Was that something he did to everyone, or did he truly feel that he owed as much fealty among our own kind as he did to some Emperor that he’d likely never met? It was both a worrisome and exciting thought.
We quietly gathered up ourselves and went to bathe before the evening meal came. All the while, I was quietly trying to come up with a way to entertain my pack tomorrow. If I could do that, could we bridge the gap between packs? What would that even mean? What would it be like if we all worked together?
Ideas started to swirl in my head. I had to try something.
Strangely, the last meal of the day was delivered in baskets by the guards. The four of us sprang up when we heard the gates open, fully expecting to have to battle our way through another meal. This time, though, there was no mad rush into the hallways. In fact, only our pack went into the halls, only to find a dozen guards carrying baskets our way.
A basket was walked into our room and set on the floor for the four of us. The guard said nothing as he left the basket behind. Our basket bore a symbol I now recognized as the symbol of our pack, having seen it on the signs that Red had held up prior to our lessons. We watched as the guard retreated and the other packs received their baskets. Each basket seemed to be sized and portioned appropriately for the size of the pack it was meant for.
As suddenly as they had arrived, the guards departed, retreating through the gates and bolting them behind them. I expected we’d not be getting out again this evening. Already, the light from outside had begun to fade. Soon, we’d be left in the dark, not that it much mattered to me. I’d always had good night sight, and it seemed to only get stronger the older I got.
The four of us gathered around the basket. It was almost too nice for a place like this. The woven basket had a red cloth inside, and the smells that came from within were nothing short of heavenly. We may have been fed before our midday lessons, but we’d more than used up all the energy that food had given us. Red’s class had left us all drained, tired, and sore.
Legs fell to his knees beside the basket, with his dog’s chin resting on his shoulder. They both eyed it like the people of the city looked at the small idols they prayed to in their homes, as if the basket itself were something divine. His hands shook as he beheld the basket. Tiny was less reserved, following L.D.’s example, he began sniffing at it. Killer watched with an even expression, though his stomach growled audibly. I nodded to him and took my place on the floor beside the basket.
“Let’s open this.” Tiny said encouragingly, but they were clearly waiting for me to open it, being pack leader.
I didn’t hesitate. Dog was at my side, and his saliva rubbed on my elbow as I lifted the flaps of red fabric aside to see what was in the basket. It contained a wealth of delicacies: roasted meats, savory bread, smoked cheeses, and apricot preserves. As a treat, a small bundle of roasted and glazed nuts were tucked inside a small dish. There was enough for everyone. We would not have to fight for this meal or eat food covered in sand.
Legs began crying softly as we handed out the luxurious meal we’d been given. Killer put a steadying hand on Legs’ shoulder and gave him a nod. “Eat.” That was all he said, but it had its intended effect. The eight of us, four humans and four dogs, dug in, eating every last morsel. A carafe of cool water, flavored with citrus and cucumber, washed it down.
We saved the candied nuts for last. I held out the dish, and we each took one to start. Tiny regarded it with suspicion, but we all popped them into our mouths at the same moment. Our eyes went wide with surprise. The salty-sweet crunch with subtle hints of cardamom and honey were enough to make one swoon. We began to laugh and grabbed greedily at the remaining nuts, still careful to not take more than our share. The dogs tried them, but only Dog really seemed to like them. I gave him my last one.
The entire experience of the meal felt surreal. We’d been caged, forced to fight each other, and made roommates of necessity with strangers. The whole last day had all felt so cruel that this simple act of kindness, a pleasant meal, overwhelmed us all. It restored the spirits, and I found myself hating the place a little less. Was this how it would be? Would they work us hard, push us, treat us like beasts, and then feed us well?
A final surprise waited for us at the bottom of the basket: a jar of thick paste, something minty-smelling. I tasted it first, frowning at its bitterness and greasy, powerful taste. It did not seem like food. I spat it out, wishing I had more of the candied nuts to eat to rid my mouth of this new taste. Legs shook his head as he sniffed it, and Tiny shrugged.
Killer took the jar and smelled it. “Liniment, for pain and wounds.” He answered, dipping his fingers into it. He immediately rubbed it into his forearm, where he had a pretty nasty scrape that had already scabbed, but the bruises around it were just beginning to really darken.
We all followed his example, though I did not much care for the greasy feel of it on my skin. Dog didn’t much care for the smell, either. He sneezed and rubbed at his muzzle where a small bit of it had transferred to his nose.
After, since the wash areas were not busy, we made our way down to wash some of the grime from our faces and bodies. The other packs seemed content to laze about after a day of exertions and a filling meal, so we were not bothered as we went about our business. We cleared out quickly, heading back to sleep. With more hard lessons waiting for us tomorrow, sufficient rest would be important.
I set my damp blankets up along the back wall. The others followed my example, settling in toward the back of the room. Among the four of us, Killer was the one to sleep closest to the doorway. He did this on his own, perhaps deciding he was best suited to being the first line of defense against the other packs.
I tried to remain awake, or to sleep in shifts, but the events of the day had left me tired and sore. Dog and I slipped off into sleep almost immediately. Caution failed in the face of exhaustion.
Killer and Legs managed to find a pair of less filthy blankets that we could huddle into that night, while Tiny and I explored the washroom. It was strange to have such a large area dedicated to water, let alone bathing, when I’d never seen anything larger than a fountain in the public square or an ankle-deep river of water temporarily running down an alley after a particularly heavy rain.
The room was expansive, and the room was almost entirely filled with a pool that was staggering in size. It had to be large enough for fifty to a hundred people, and it was constantly fed by running water. Water cascading down into the pool through a pipe on one side of the tiled room, and it drained on the other side through a grate at the bottom of the pool.
The entire pool, other than just beneath where the water entered, was surrounded by enough walkway for three people to walk beside each other. Several stations on the near side had been set up along the wall for us to relieve ourselves or rinse off. Along the far wall there were a handful of spigots, with a pile of flat rocks and cakes of yellow soap. I knew them to be washing areas for clothes.
I’d scrubbed my clothes once or twice in similar setups, not that I’d ever been particularly big on doing laundry. A clean smell and appearance could do more to attract the wrong kind of attention where I’d grown up than a filthy look did. Still, it was a good place to wash the mingled piss of boys and dogs from our blankets.
Tiny and I set to washing the blankets. He was good at it, once shown how. He rinsed and squeezed, while I scrubbed and soaped it up with the heavy soap we’d been provided with. Then I’d hand it back to him for more rinsing and squeezing. We worked together on wringing it out after each blanket was as clean as we could get it.
Meanwhile, Tiny and Dog stood watch and tested the water. Dog had never gone swimming before, but Tiny was not opposed to testing out the shallower edges of the pool, nothing below the first step. Tiny eyed me. He’d watched me for some time as I finished up the last of our blankets. We’d actually have at least two blankets per person once these were dry – or one per person and one per dog.
“So you’re going to be our pack leader?” It was more of a question than an argument from Tiny.
“I didn’t want it, but someone had to stand up. Legs wasn’t just as likely to take off as he was to stand and fight, and Killer wasn’t going to take charge. I’m glad Killer is on our side. I could be wrong, but he looks like the type that wants to be pointed at an enemy and told to attack. He doesn’t want to choose who he has to fight.”
“And me?” Tiny asked, not arguing with either of my previous assessments.
I thought this one over. It was easy to comment on Legs and Killer, since they weren’t listening, but Tiny was asking me in person what I thought of him. If I said the wrong thing, I could lose him forever, and this was not a large pack. We had the smallest pack, tied with Pack Do, but they were older and more experienced, so we might as well have been the smallest. We needed all four of us if we were going to survive.
I decided to be honest with what I said, but tried not to be cruel. “You’re all fight, Tiny. I’m not sure how smart you are yet.”
Tiny barked a laugh, and, hearing it echo in the tiled room, laughed even louder. “You’re probably right. I get it from L.D. He’s always ready to attack without thinking.”
I grinned. “I saw...”
“Thanks for pulling us both back before. We get in the moment and don’t know how to back down, not matter the odds.”
“Don’t worry. There will be time enough for fighting later.” I just hoped it wasn’t too soon. Chahar Pack was itching for a fight, and I doubted we’d get more than a few days before it came. I wouldn’t have been totally surprised if it came later in the day or perhaps at night. Sometimes, if you have to make a point, it’s better to do it quickly.
Almost on cue, a bell rang from the other side of the building, possibly from one of the towers back across the sandy square of the gallery where we’d had our orientation. From down the hall, we heard as boys and dogs erupted at once from their rooms, not even minding who they ran next to or what pack each of them belonged to.
“Move!” I shouted, gathering up the soaking blankets and running for the door. Dog led the way for us.
Back at our room, Killer and Legs stood in the doorway, looking confused.
“What is it?” Legs asked worriedly. His dog was crouched beside him, looking worriedly out at the crowd in the hall.
I sniffed the air. Even without Dog’s extra senses, I knew what this was. “Food.”
I tossed the sodden blankets in the corner and started down the hall with my pack in tow. Twenty-some boys and their dogs crowded before the gates, waiting for them to open. Some of them jockeyed for position, trying to get closer to the front, but Yek Pack, the largest group, held the forefront without any serious challenge. They also had the closest door to the gates, probably for this very reason. We, being the newest and weakest, waited at the rear.
When the heavy gates opened, it was a mad dash forward. Not knowing what to expect, I held my pack back until we knew more. We broke out onto the sand just in time to see buckets of meat, fruit, and vegetables thrown from the second floor balconies on the east and west sides of the gallery. The food rained down from both directions in a hail of colors, flopping onto the sand unceremoniously.
I knew how this was going to go. I’d seen this sort of thing before when rich people decided to throw food to the poor on the special days during the year. It made them feel better about themselves to throw away scraps unfit for their own tables, knowing that the lesser folk wouldn’t hesitate to snatch up their leavings from the filthy ground. I’d fought with kids over crusts of bread, sweets so rich they made your teeth ache, and half-eaten legs of roasted fowl. I’d seen kids trampled on those days and others go hungry as bullies stole food from the weaker and slower.
Not today. Not us.
“Legs! Go!” I bellowed.
“But…” He started to protest, blinking in surprise.
“Get something!” I ordered, pointing at the less crowded pile of food.
As the fastest among us, he sprang forward with his dog. They were amazingly swift, churning up dirt as they went. When they raced, all hints of weakness and timidity vanished. They were all legs and flashes of speed. Somehow, they elbowed to the front of the pack and snagged a chunk of meat and something else from the pile, astonishing others from the more established packs. Before anyone could stop them, they’d pulled free of the tangle and darted back to our sides with their prizes. Killer and his beast set up a perimeter with Dog and I, guarding our pack’s plunder.
Tiny, seeing what had been done, grinned. “This, we can do.” Without being ordered to do so, he and his little dog worked their own particular magic. If I hadn’t seen it, I’d scarcely have believed it, but I knew from watching that this must have been their trick, wherever they’d come from.
Dog and I worked as a team, too, usually with me being the distraction and Dog being the go-getter. Tiny and L.D. worked differently. Tiny worked the periphery of a crowd and was an expert at seeing overlooked morsels. With a nod or a gesture from his partner, L.D. would sneak into the crowd, weaving between feet, ankles, and haunches to grab whatever Tiny indicated. Often, that little beast would drag out something as large as itself. He made half a dozen trips, depositing his treasures before his partner’s feet. Then he’d go back for more.
By the time we were done, our squad had made off with quite a haul. We stood in a wary circle, breaking off chunks of the partially-cooked meats, still raw and bloody in spots, to share with our dogs. Bruised fruits and vegetables held little interest to the dogs, other than a few morsels here and there, so the four of us boys ate most of them. None of us much cared about the sand or dog saliva on our food. We’d all eaten worse before.
Like us, the other packs gathered in their groups to eat after completing their gathering. Pack Chahar ate where they stood, snarling and snapping at each other and the other packs. Through sheer noise and bluster, they had managed to get a little more than their share, not necessarily the choicest pieces, but a more than fair share nonetheless.
Pack Do’s behavior was the most random. Some of them had picked at the best portions from what had been offered to us all, while others horded extra for themselves. It was a group that was together, but apart. They clearly had a lot of leeway to do their own thing within their pack, so long as they did not interfere with each other.
Their leader ate while he paced the edge of their pack, guarding them with his large black dog. With his torn lip and cheek, eating looked difficult for him; he ate only on the good side of his mouth. He caught me watching him and sent me a nasty glare that his beast echoed. We looked away after meeting his gaze for a stretch of time I felt did not threaten him, but also did not show fear. That was important.
Pack Se was the quietest and calmest, of course. They sat calmly and ate, passing food among themselves so they all received an even amount. Their pack leader, the massive boy with the bulldog companion, met my gaze and nodded when they saw that we were doing similarly. He was not being nice exactly, but it was an expression of acceptance. I suspected we had the least to fear from that group, but looks could be deceiving.
Pack Yek did their own thing, and, being the largest group, no one bothered them. They ate in near silence, taking care of their dogs first, themselves second. As one, they looked over at us, the newcomers, eyeing us with the strange unity that we all found unnerving. They looked away as one, leaving us with no clue as to which one of them was their leader. Maybe they didn’t need one.
Afterward, Tiny and L.D. scouted for leftovers, finding some, but nothing of great value, like a fig that had been crushed beneath someone’s heel, now more sand than fruit, or a small poultry bone. They were nothing that we wanted to eat, but L.D. relished in the search. Perhaps that would be a useful skill to cultivate. We all let L.D. keep his finds. He contentedly sat on the sand and gnawed on that poultry bone with a whole lot of self-satisfaction, steadying it with his paws so that his needle-sharp teeth could worry at its edges. Tiny sat proudly beside him and watched.
After our meal, the small eastern gate opened, much to our pack’s surprise, but not to our fellows, who seemed to expect it. We followed the others through the small gate, moving single file down the tunnel and into a walled garden area filled with scrub grasses and a few shrubs. Other than a few birds that startled and flew away when we entered and perhaps a few bugs or scorpions that might have made their home in the grasses and shrubs, the area was empty of other animals. I doubted most animals would have wanted to live in such an area anyway. It was an attempt to not look like a cage, but it was still a fenced yard.
There was enough area for all of us to stretch our legs, but not enough to get any real privacy, especially with the presence of a dozen auburn-robed guards that patrolled with crossbows atop the walls. They walked the lengths of the three exterior walls, the fourth wall being the side of the main building. The walls were three times as high as I was tall, and they were thick enough to walk two men abreast along the top. There were squat towers along the eastern side at the two corners that sat away from the main building. Atop the walls in the two places where the walls met the main building, there were small wooden doors, allowing the guards entry to and from the eastern wing of the complex.
We watched the others at first, trying to decide what we were supposed to be doing, but most of them simply watched as their dogs relieved themselves on anything in sight, be it a bush, the walls, a patch of hardy desert grass, or, in a couple case, even each other.
For a few brief moments, the walls and divisions between our groups seemed to melt. Despite their sizes and types, the dogs seemed to have a secret language of play that they all knew. They began to kick at dirt, run, chase each other, and play in the manner of dogs. It was infectious, to the point where even the more standoffish canines from Pack Yek began to get involved.
Dog stood aside, watching the others play from my side. I’d have encouraged him to go, but he and I both knew that he was different. These were all domesticated dogs, no matter how vicious or tough some of them might be. Dog was different, a breed apart, a desert animal meant for the wild, yet somehow attached to me. We’d found each other and made our own pack long before this place had forced us to join another. Castoffs, both of us, we would never truly belong.
The rest of my new pack had run off, playing and running, stretching their legs alongside their dogs. They, at least, knew a few moments of freedom. Maybe next time we would as well, I thought, knowing in my heart we would never fully fit in, no matter how we tried. Still, if it helped us get back to Nokomi, we’d try. We could always pretend, learning to mimic their ways.
Then, the bells began to ring again, and we once more segregated into our packs and filed back inside. This time, I gleaned from listening to the other packs, we were to have lessons.
It was time to learn how to play at their games, but which game would we play first? I actually hoped it would be fighting, and, from the looks of it, Pack Chahar’s leader did, too.
After our orientation, we were taken through the north gates, which all but told me that the way out was through the south gates. Although, that way there were also towers that I’d seen lofted over the rest of the building. I wasn’t sure of the exact layout, but memorizing landmarks was something one learned to do after living on the streets, where one dark, smelly alley could look much like another, unless one learned to memorize landmarks, some at ground level and others overhead.
The towers meant that anyone coming or going from the Kennel would have to be careful to avoid being seen. Dog and I knew how to be quiet and pass from shadow to shadow, but I guessed that there would be little near the building and along the way to hide with, and we still didn’t know where we were going. Like it or not, Dog and I were in this for the long haul. We’d have to learn what we could, and then move along, hopefully to Nokomi’s side.
That started with following Kalb through the north gates and into the Kennel’s housing area, what he referred to as the Dog House. The smell of animals wafted out to meet us as soon as the gates swung open. In fact, I even noticed the telltale signs of territorial marking on the inside of the tunnel. Dog and I glanced at each other, resisting the urge to mark over the other markings. The feisty, smallest boy was not so inhibited. He and his miniature dog relieved themselves freely on their way down the stone passage. Strangely, no one attempted to stop them. Kalb grinned at the pair, smiling toothily, almost approvingly.
We emerged into a dank hall that smelled very strongly of dog, wet and otherwise. The musky odor pervaded the entire dim building, having penetrated the walls and floors. I did not mind it, but I imagined anyone not of our kind would find the stench unbearable. Of course, Dog and I had grown up in an alley.
Eight rooms split off from the hallway, four to each side, each marked only with an arched entry and no door of any kind. From the sounds and smells coming from the end of the hall, where there was a ninth door, I knew there was a bathing room. Tracks, both human and canine, led from the room at the end to the smaller rooms set on either side of the hall. Our only lighting came from several skylights, all easily two or three stories overhead. There was certainly no escape that way.
“You four will settle into any room in these halls. You may choose. Four of them are already taken, and their owners would not take lightly to you attempting to take their room, but if that is your will, you may attempt to do so.” Kalb smiled at the thought.
I thought I saw some heads poking out of the doorways toward the end of the hall, but Kalb’s speech was not over, and I wanted to pay attention. The rule of the streets was to know the rules. You had to know how things worked before you started doing things, or you could make some enemies needlessly. I was not afraid, but I was wary. These were not simple street kids. They each had a partner like Dog, and I was no longer the kid with a special advantage.
“You will all stay together, looking after each other as a pack. These are your littermates. It is up to you to decide who is in charge. In the way of dogs, I’m sure you’ll all sort it out.”
“This is Pack Yek.” He indicated the nearest doorway, where eight boys lounged on piles of straw with their dogs. Most were older than me, and they had a curious look about them in that they turned their heads exactly at the same moment as their dogs. The synchronicity was unnerving, as if they’d forged such a profound bond, not just with their dogs but with each other, that they acted in unison. They looked at us in a clearly disinterested way, mostly because they saw as no threat. Four to eight wasn’t the kind of odds I was looking for.
We moved on.
“Pack Do.” Kalb announced at the next door. Only four boys sat in this room, but they clearly had something to prove. They bristled at us in a very discouraging way. The four of them looked more intimidating than the eight boys in the other room had, despite their lesser numbers. They were certainly more overt in their aggression. A boy stood near the door with his arms folded across his cheek. He wore a vicious a scar across his cheek that ended in a torn lower lip that had never healed quite right. A powerful, black dog slavered beside him, lips peeled back in a toothy promise of violence. “Move on.” The scarred boy growled at us.
“Pack Se.” This group was a calmer bunch. The five of them sat in a circle, grooming their animals and each other. They chose not to look up. It was almost as if they welcomed the challenge, but knew it would not come. The five of them looked quite capable of defending themselves. They were led by a powerfully-built boy that was easily as large as Adish, despite being an adolescent. A bulldog was draped across his lap, gazing at us with calm, red-rimmed eyes. The tip of its tongue stuck out between its protruding lower canines. Other than the bulldog, none of them, boy or dog, gave us any attention.
“Pack Chahar.” This pack was clearly and literally behind the smallest boy, who paced beside a dog far larger than himself, a beast that might have been larger than Kalb’s own dog. The thick fur on the beast looked nearly impenetrable, and the growl coming from its chest was as deep as a drum. The other five boys and their dogs stood at the back of the room.
“Fresh meat!” The pack leader called out at us menacingly, pounding on his chest.
Of course, our smallest friend’s little dog didn’t care much for such taunting. The little dog darted into their room, skidding to a halt just inside the doorway to snarl at the whole lot of them.
“You want to take a bite of us? Try it!” His owner shouted, backing up his miniscule dog immediately.
He was ready for a fight, and Pack Chahar’s leader was willing to give it to him. With a signal, his massive dog charged, its gaping maw about to be the last thing the tiny dog would ever see.
I knew very few swear words, but I understood their function very well. In that very moment, I needed more of them than I actually knew. I jumped forward and grabbed the boy by the shoulders, hauling him back from the room. At the same moment, Dog seized the troublemaker pup in his jaws, clamping just hard enough to carry him without harming him. Even being carried in another dog’s mouth, the little terror was not having any of it, snapping and snarling at everyone around him as we backed out of the room.
Pack Chahar’s leader stood in shock as his giant dog’s jaws came up empty. I put myself between the rest of our fledgling group and his beast. “No fighting. Not today.”
Chahar’s leader grinned at that. I knew his type. Had I just stopped the fight, he would not have been satisfied, but I’d promised him a fight. He’d always be looking for one – that was the sort of person he was. Except, I planned on giving him that fight on my terms. The only problem was that he’d be looking to do the same, and there were two more of them than there were us.
“A new room for Pack Panj, then.” Kalb announced with great amusement. Apparently, watching us establish the pecking order of our mixed society was quite entertaining to him.
There were four other empty rooms. I chose one as far from Pack Chahar as possible. There was no sense trying to get in their faces any more than need be.
Kalb left us there to get settled in, leaving us with only this last piece of advice: “This is going to be hard. Find your place in it and learn your lessons well.” Perhaps most importantly, he also added, “Food is served twice a day. Don’t miss it, or you go hungry. There isn’t always enough, and the weak might not eat.”
He departed then, leaving us in the dusty room. There were a few worn blankets in the corner, but they all smelled of piss. One sniff told me who’d done it, and I had a strong suspicion the other three empty rooms would be similarly befouled. I already hated the guy, but his dog was the largest of any I’d seen, so he’d have to be taken down carefully.
Left to our own devices, the four of us glanced at each other. There was no furniture and nothing but piss-soaked blankets in our room, so we sized each other up. None of us seemed particularly impressed with any of the others in our small group. The long-legged boy with the scrawny-looking dog seemed the timidest of our bunch; he refused to meet many of our gazes for more than a few seconds, and his dog looked ready to run and play, or at least run away. The stocky boy with his dangerous-looking dog had done and said nothing. He met us with even, emotionless stares. He’d been content to follow us around and see how things played out, but I had a strong suspicion he would have jumped into that fight had it actually started. That left our small friend. He wasn’t happy about how everything had gone down.
“Look, mutt.” He started, putting his finger in my face. His little dog backed him up, but he eyed Dog warily. His trip in Dog’s mouth was far too recent to forgive or forget just yet.
“Did you want to get killed for nothing?” I demanded, slapping his hands aside before he could say much else.
“He wasn’t going to do nuthin to us! L.D. and I are too fast for him!” He protested.
With six sets of eyes on him, he withered a bit, but looked as if he were formulating a new excuse. I didn’t give him the time to do so. “We will fight him. We will hurt him… Just not now. We do it on our time. Now is not that time.”
The boy opened his mouth but closed it. He looked mollified, for now. He took his little dog to the corner and gave him a look over.
I settled to the floor and gave them all a moment. I looked around the room. A pair of narrow, barred windows were our only light and fresh air. I watched motes of dust float past in the two columns of light that the windows admitted into the room. The ground beneath me was hard-packed earth covered with rushes. The walls were cool stone. It was cleaner than many places I’d slept, but it was not home.
I looked at Dog, and he gave me a look. I gave him a pat on the back and examined his flank, where Kalb’s dog had bitten him. His wound seemed clean and didn’t seem to bother him that badly. Dog looked at me again, perking his round ears. He wasn’t going to let this go.
He and I both knew we had to bond with these strangers. This would not be the sort of bond I had with Dog or with Nokomi. No, this was not a bond of blood or family. This was a bond of brotherhood created by necessity, and I needed to start it. “I’m Go. This is Dog.” I looked around at them expectantly. Dog and I demanded introductions with our unwavering eyes.
“Killer.” The stocky boy announced. Apparently that was the name of both him and his dog. I could live with that. They both looked the part.
The skinny boy looked at his dog, smiling as he petted its narrow head. He played with the long hair of its floppy ears. “Legs, you can call us, both of us.”
“Tiny and L.D. – Little Dog.” Came the final answer from the corner. “If you needed to know.”
I wasn’t going to push things much more than that. They were my pack, and I’d set myself up as their leader, for now at least. I hadn’t wanted to or expected to, but Tiny had pushed me to it with his brash act before. I closed my eyes for a while, trying to settle into my role as Pack Leader for Pack Panj, but my momentary peace would not last.
National Novel Writing Month 2019: The Emperor's Dogs