“Must you go?” Nokomi asked. It was the closest she’d allow her voice to get to actual pleading.
I met her eyes and nodded. “I must try to meet with some of the others before I go. They must know that we have not given up, that we will gather our forces and rally against Navid.”
She put her hand on my forearm. “You are hurt. It is not safe for you to go.”
“It is not safe to not go, Nokomi. You know that we will need every soldier we can find, and the Emperor’s Dogs…” It felt strange to call them that still with the Emperor dead. “They are worth more than any other soldier we can find.”
She withdrew her hand and folded her arms across her chest, turning away from me. “I know what you say is true, but I wish you could stay. We only just escaped with our lives, and you’re ready to throw caution to the wind and run back out there.”
I reached for her, hesitating, my fingertips stopping just shy of her shoulder. Gone were my claws, but the scabbed ends of my fingers were not pretty, and they were a definite reminder that she and I were very different creatures. “I wish I could stay, but this must be done.”
“Sometimes, I wish we could just run away, be done with all of this – the expectations, the roles, the fighting.” She sighed.
“Without being who you are and me being who I am, we’d never have met, Princess.” I said softly. I placed my hand on her shoulder then, finding my bravery, if just for that moment.
She covered my hand with her own, and looked back over her shoulder at me. I watched those warm eyes for a long moment, but Dog came between us then, literally. He began nosing at the both of us for attention, as if she and I weren’t allowed to touch if he wasn’t involved.
I snorted a laugh, which pulled at the wounds on my cheeks. Halina had offered to stitch them up, but I had a suspicion that stitches might make future changes harder. I didn’t know when I would have to go that far into the beast again, and I wanted nothing holding me back when the time came.
“Be quick and be safe.” Nokomi smiled down at Dog, giving him her hand to sniff. “Both of you.”
“Actually, I’ll be going alone.” I said quickly.
“What?” She stared at me as if I were truly a strange creature in that moment, and that was saying something.
“I need to go on the rooftops, and Dog would just slow me down. I don’t plan on going far or going for long. This is something I can do by myself.”
“You can do that? Aren’t you just a normal person without him beside you?”
I smiled at that thought, that I would ever be normal. “We’ve been practicing being apart, so it should not present any issues. Dog and I are bonded whether he is right next to me or not, but great distances would make things more difficult.”
“I will keep Dog company then, while we wait for your return.” Nokomi offered, kneeling to get at Dog’s level. She hid her worries by paying attention to Dog, instead of letting me see the concern on her face.
“I’m sure he’ll appreciate that. As will I.” I reached for my cloak then, which Sherine had hung on a peg near the entry.
“Go.” Nokomi said my name softly.
I pulled the cloak around my shoulders and looked back to her, finding her suddenly very near to me. There was a strange light in her eyes, worry and something else.
She reached out, grabbing the front of my shirt and pulling my face down to hers. Her lips pressed gently against mine in a chaste but affectionate gesture. I smiled against her mouth, and she opened her eyes, a hint of merriment dancing in them. My cheeks flushed, and I kissed her back for real, my hands seizing her waist and holding her against me.
“Come back to us.” She whispered when we broke apart.
“I will.” I nodded. “Bolt the door behind me.”
Dog whined softly, sharing his concerns, but he knew I would be as safe as possible.
I opened the door and slid out, not trusting myself to look back at her. Instead, I disappeared into the darkness, waiting only until I heard the door bolt before I vanished into the neighboring alleys.
I crept along, searching for the best place to ascend. I found such a place not far down the street and made my way up three floors using windowsills, balconies, ledges, and clotheslines to reach the top of the building. I moved atop the building quietly, heading for the edge, where I could peer out across the city.
The palace was ablaze with the light of many signal fires and torches. Much of the rest of the city, perhaps in response, was uncharacteristically dark. On the far horizon, I could see just the barest hints of dawn creeping into the night sky. I would have to hurry, or I would not make it back home before dawn, and I didn’t want to risk being spotted.
I made my way across the rooftops, sometimes descending a level, only to climb back once more once I’d reached the next block. With my thoughts still on Dog and our connection, I was able to tap into our shared abilities, and so I could leap across spans that no normal man could have cleared. This helped to make sure that my meeting would not be observed by others, not unless they had the same powers as I did. I arrived first, or so I thought. Two figures emerged from the shadows shortly after I arrived.
One of them was Scar. His face was twisted in a nasty grin. Then again, most of his smiles looked pretty gruesome. “I never thought I’d get the drop on you. Dog must be far away from you, if your senses are this dull.”
I said nothing until I could see the other person clearly. To my surprise, it was Sardar. He had been the first boy taken to the Kennel, where he had spent several years as their chief experiment. Much had happened to him in the years he had been there, including the death of his dog, and a subsequent bonding to the dog of another Old Blood child who had died tragically.
“Sardar.” I nodded to him.
“Go.” He replied smoothly. He had a peculiar, detached manner about him. He and the pack he’d made at the Kennel had always acted as one.
“Are there others coming?” I asked.
Scar shook his head. “Not yet. We haven’t had time. I’ll get more, but it won’t be easy. They’re on the lookout around the city for men with dogs.”
“They don’t know we can separate yet.” I surmised.
That was good. It gave us an advantage. Unfortunately, few of the Old Blood could go as far from their dogs as I could and still draw upon their abilities. I was certain that Scar and Sardar both had their dogs within a block or two of this building, perhaps even in the building itself.
“Just tell us where we should meet you.” Sardar replied, but there was something about the way he said it that sounded wrong to me.
I tried not to shift into a more guarded stance, but it was difficult. This smelled all wrong, even to my diminished senses. “Sardar? What are you not telling me?”
Scar took two steps toward me, turning on Sardar. He’d noticed it, too, now that I’d said something.
“We serve the Emperor, Go.” Sardar said simply, his hands going palms up as he shrugged.
“The Emperor is dead, betrayed and killed by his brother.” I growled.
Sardar shook his head. “There must be an Emperor. We cannot be a pack without a master.”
“Then serve Go!” Scar shouted.
Sardar shook his head again. “Go is a dog, Scar, not a man. We must serve a man. That was how we were trained.”
“Sardar, the Emperor’s line continues. He has an heir. We must protect and serve him, not the betrayer.”
“That may be true,” Sardar admitted, “but only if the heir is strong enough to take control. Pack Yek will serve the strongest claim.”
“Pack Yek?” Scar spat on the ground. “That is no more. We are all Pack Sefr – All or Nothing. Remember?”
“We do not wish for more bloodshed.” Sardar said apologetically. “But we realize that some is necessary.”
“Then you will not stop us from gathering the other dogs or an army to fight Navid?” I asked.
Sardar shook his head. “We will say nothing. We will wait for the outcome.”
I nodded, taking note of the shadows rising on the roofs of several neighboring buildings. At least six more of Sardar’s old pack mates had surrounded us, but they made no move to stop us or capture us. It was a show of force, of solidarity, so we would not attempt to harm Sardar for delivering this disappointing news.
Sardar bowed. “May the true Emperor win.” He barked, just loud enough to be heard. A chorus of other barks followed from the neighboring rooftops. Then he jumped to the next roof and disappeared into the failing night.
Scar shook his head and watched them go, his hands balled into fists. “All or Nothing. What does it mean to them?” He spat on the ground again. A little of it dribbled on his chin, because of his mouth.
“If they do not wish to fight with us, at least they are not against us. Those ones were always a little different, a breed apart. They are not savage, as we are.”
“It will take savagery to win this, Go. General Navid is a popular man in the army, with many supporters in the city as well. We cannot win by meeting treachery and murder with polite words and wishful thinking.”
“I know, Scar. Believe me. That’s why I will count on you to gather as many of the dogs as you can. Meet me at the Kennel in three weeks.”
“And where will you go?” Scar wondered.
“To meet an old friend with a very large dog.” I replied, grinning.
Scar’s eyebrow rose, not quite getting the reference. But then, he didn’t know everything that I did. I laughed and vanished into the night, hurrying back across rooftops to Nokomi. I took a roundabout route back to Adish’s house, in case I was being followed. The meeting with Sardar had me watching my back even more than before.
Still, I moved with a hurried step. My forehead burned at the memory of her mouth meeting mine, and I couldn’t wait to get back to her. Sardar had never known the truth about me, that I served her and not the Emperor. Had he known, would he have let me go just now? I doubted it.
The nine of us gathered around: the leaders of Yek, Se, Do, and Chahar with all five members of Panj, even if Tiny was in a fitful sleep. Many of the other members of the packs gathered in the hallway to hear. They huddled together quietly to listen, reminding me of a crowd watching a game of stones, only much quieter.
We all looked to the nondescript boy from Yek with a bit of surprise, since they never did much alone. For some reason, he’d been chosen to represent Pack Yek. He introduced himself as Sardar, which was also a surprise. It sounded like a birth name, while we all had nicknames. Most of us shared the nicknames with our dogs, while some of us, like myself, also had names for our dogs. The first pack was different in many ways, but they had been here much longer than any of us.
“We all know why we’re here.” I began. I’d brought all this about, so they would look to me to lead the discussion. “We must decide a fate for Drum and his dog, Bear. Whatever we decide, we must decide together, so that the Emperor and his advisor, who you know as Yellow-Eyes, will agree.”
“You already have a decision made? You’ve decided amongst your pack?” Scar inquired. He spoke slowly, enunciating carefully. With the scars around his mouth, it was difficult for him to speak quickly.
I looked to my fellows, and they nodded to me. I grasped Tiny’s hand as he slept. “Yes. We will demand that Drum is executed for killing our pack member’s dog.”
Scar’s mouth twisted in a wry smile. “I do not like him. I never have. He was insufferable even before you came here. Then you all pushed him to a point where he had no choice. Now he gets to die for it.”
“So you are against us getting our vengeance for L.D.’s murder?” Killer demanded hotly. His body tensed angrily. His dog lifted its head, flashing its large canines.
Scar shook his head and laughed. “No. If he must die, then he must die. I only wanted to lay the blame where it needed to be. You all are not innocent in this, so think upon that before you easily decide to execute someone.”
Legs stood up and pointed a finger at the others. He ignored Scar’s dog baring teeth at his accusing finger. He had something he had to say. “Maybe you all shouldn’t have created such a hostile culture. You had months and years to make this place what you would, and you want to blame us? We’re the victims here. You all created him.”
This incident had certainly given Legs something of a spine. Weeks ago, he’d not have looked any of these boys in the eyes. Now he was berating the whole group. I let him say his piece and kept my expression neutral.
Bull nodded, looking abashed. “It is how they made this place. They demanded that we compete like animals. We could have been building each other up, like brothers. We let this come to this point, and we did nothing to stop it. You are right.”
“So we are all to blame, the instructors, us, and you all.” Scar admitted. Then, almost reluctantly, as if he didn’t know he could trust us, he added, “Even the Emperor is responsible, in his own way.”
“Yes. Let us all share the blame, but Panj will gladly shoulder all of the burden of punishing him.” I declared.
“You will do it yourself?” Sardar asked. The boy with the white dog calmly stroked his dog, as if he were discussing the weather and not the execution of one of our own.
“I will.” I’d already decided this. I owed it to Tiny. I owed it to L.D. Dog was with me on this.
“So it’s decided? Drum is to die? Is there any opposed to murdering one of our own?” Mongrel asked. He certainly had no reason to love Drum. His dog still limped from Bear’s attack. Yet, he still seemed heavy-hearted about the decision.
No one opened their mouth. There were silent headshakes or still expressions, but no one was against it. There were murmurs in the hallway, but no one raised their voice to be heard.
“I have a concern.” Sardar announced. “It is not about Drum. He is mad… brain sick. I do not believe he can be saved. My concern is for his beast. What will you do with Bear? Will you kill him as well?”
No one answered that, not even me. In my mind, Drum was the one who gave the order, but Bear was the one who had murdered L.D. Could we spare the dog that did the deed if we executed the master for ordering the crime?
Sardar smiled sadly. “How will it be for that dog? We may not love Drum, but his dog? Is it Bear’s fault that his master was bred for cruelty?”
“The dog will want to die with his master.” Scar suggested, his dark features doing their best to frown. It was a half-frown at most.
“What can we do with him? Is there any option but putting him down?” I wondered aloud. I was honestly curious.
“I think Scar is right.” Mongrel said. “I felt the pain from my dog, and he was much nearer to death than I’d like to think. He survived, but I know how it would have affected me if he had died. I imagine it is the same way for a dog to lose a master, when you’re one of us.”
“It would be cruel to let him live. He should die with his master.” Scar was adamant about this.
“But what if?” Sardar began.
We all turned to see how that might end. Did he know something we did not?
“Yes?” I prompted, when he didn’t finish that statement.
“Pack Yek has been here longer than any of you, a year longer as a group, but I was the first. I was here before them all.”
Bull looked surprised. This was news to him as well. “You were? How long have you been here?”
“Six years.” Sardar answered.
Silence. We all just looked at each other in wonder. Most of Pack Do, from what little I’d heard before, had only been here a year or two. Pack Yek was supposedly first, but I’d guessed only two to three years at most. Six years was a very long time to be in this place, a lifetime. Dog tensed beside me, as if imagining a lifetime in this place. It was not a pleasant thought.
“It wasn’t always like this.” Sardar explained. “In the beginning, it was only me, and I was treated as a student, a guest even. Then they began to find others. As they did, they built this place up, changing it into this military camp, rather than the school it had once been.”
He paused to pet his dog. “In those early days, it was just me, but they continued to hunt. Yellow-Eyes found more. He brought a girl here and another boy as well.”
“A girl was here?” Scar looked shocked by this idea.
I, too, couldn’t believe it. None of us could. I’d never even heard of a girl with the Old Blood, not that it didn’t make sense. We’d just never seen one. How would that be, though? It was already hard enough with all of us boys, competing and fighting. What would we do if there was a girl to compete for as well? Would she rule us all as we fought for her favor, or would we kill each other to possess her?
Sardar continued his story. “It was just us three for several months, but then there was an accident. Or maybe it wasn’t an accident. No matter the cause, the girl died, leaving her dog behind. The dog was mad with loss. In the manner of beasts, he refused to eat, and was waiting to die.”
“Now I was angry at her death. I blamed the other boy, rightfully so, I believe. In a fit of rage, I attacked him. My dog was killed while I killed the boy.” Sardar looked around at us, letting his story sink in. He flipped over his white dog’s ear, petting the soft, downy fur of the white dog’s ears.
“I felt like I might die. I wanted to, honestly.” Sardar’s faced was shadowed with the painful memories, but that look vanished after a moment, to be replaced with a smile. “This dog also wanted to die, but one day, something changed. I felt the same sort of pain in this dog as I felt inside. We had that pain in common. It was a start. It was what we both needed. We bonded, dog and boy, and we survived.”
We all froze. Never would we have believed that he was on his second dog, that this was a second bond. None of us had even known it was possible. What did that mean for Tiny? Was it possible? The room held their collective breath as we waited for him to continue. Dogs shifted nervously, but the boys remained stone still.
“Without a dog, Tiny will die.” Sardar said definitively. “He will lose the will to survive. Bear will do the same when Drum dies. They could try to bond. Only, I don’t know if they would be a match. I don’t know if they could forgive each other and learn to live together. They may be too different.”
“Or they might be just what each other needs, like with your story.” I offered.
“Maybe.” Sardar smiled softly, rising to his feet. “No matter what, I will support your decision. Pack Yek is behind you completely. But, if you want your friend to survive, I think there is only one possible course of action. It would not be easy, and they would require a long time together, alone and in each other’s company, but they might bond.”
He left without another word, his foster dog at his side. He was living proof that someone could survive losing a dog, but only if there was another one to bond with. Is that would Tiny would want? His hand tightened imperceptibly in mine, as if he’d heard the story and understood. I hoped it was so.
“We are all in agreement then?” I released Tiny’s hand and stood. Dog stood beside me. “Drum is to die. Tiny is to be given a chance to bond with Bear, if they will tolerate the match.”
“Pack Do agrees.” Scar answered quickly.
“Pack Se agrees.” Bull nodded.
“Pack Chahar agrees.” Mongrel said reluctantly. He hated Drum, but he’d known him best. It was hard to say goodbye, but it was what needed to be done.
“Pack Yek’s vote is with me, so we are all in agreement. I will take the news to the Emperor.” I hesitated, knowing this would not be enough. “When this is all done, we need to be done with these packs. They will only cause division. This tragedy could happen again.”
“What do you suggest then?” Scar asked.
“A new pack.” Killer suggested, smiling. He knew where I was going with this, even if I hadn’t discussed it with him.
“I thought you said do away with packs!” Scar protested. He didn’t seem to like the idea of losing his pack, but he had to know that Fire was practically a member of our pack now anyway, reducing his own group to three. That was hardly a pack.
“We are no longer Yek, Do, Se, Chahar, and Panj.” I said the words, smiling at Face, Killer, Legs, and Tiny’s prone form. “From now on, we are all Pack Sefr. We will use the name to honor the sacrifices made today. From now on, all of us are together, or we are nothing.”
“Pack Sefr.” Bull agreed. “All or nothing.”
“Pack Sefr.” Mongrel declared, effectively abdicating from his very short reign as leader of Chahar. He hadn’t really liked ruling anyway.
Scar looked at us all as if we were crazy, shaking his head. “Pack Sefr it is then.”
Bull stood to bark and bow to me. The others quickly did the same. I heard more barks from the hallway. The observers had agreed, including what was left of Pack Yek.
We would kill one of our own in hopes of healing one of our own. Then we would be whole again, as we had never been before.
National Novel Writing Month 2019: The Emperor's Dogs