When the Emperor left the next day, Kalb remained. He set to reordering the school, and, as promised, he involved me. We were creating something better, a place where we would all learn. I would teach these others to harness their own beasts.
Tiny and Bear were put off in a wing on their own. Once or twice, we caught glimpses of them, or we’d hear about how they were going for walks beyond the wall, walking or hunting together. They seemed like they might make it. It was still touch and go, but we had hope.
I’d come a long way. I’d started as a street boy with nothing but a dog. Now I had a whole pack. And, more importantly, I had a girl to get back to. Now that the Emperor knew of my bond with her, surely he would set me as her guard.
But first, I had to become the best version of myself. Dog would help me. Then our true pack would be reunited. It didn’t matter how long it would take. We would be together again.
We were pack.
It was eerily silent in the gallery, despite the presence of more people than I knew how to count. All thirty of the Emperor’s guards were there. Nearly as many auburn guards were there as well. Our four instructors were there, standing behind the Emperor and Kalb. They all faced us from the south side of the gallery as we were led out.
The whole of Pack Sefr came out from the north wing. We lined up in unity for the first time, each with a dog beside them, all of us except for Tiny, who stood only because Killer and Legs supported him where he stood. I was located in the middle of our group, standing directly opposed to the Emperor.
The whole place was lit with torch light. Some of the torches spat and hissed, still snapping from being recently lit. The smoke huddled in the still air, much of it not rising enough to be blown away up and over the roof. The haze lent to the strange air of severity on the sand.
“Bring out the accused.” The Emperor ordered.
Gates opened to permit Drum, who staggered and stumbled until he had to be carried by two guards. They threw him in a heap halfway between the Emperor and me. He was a mess – unwashed, unfed, and uncaring. He’d already given up on life. Bear was strangely absent, perhaps as a mercy to the animal. He would not have to witness his master’s death, not that he would feel it any less.
“Deliver the sentence to the prisoner.” The Emperor ordered.
I cleared my throat, suddenly finding it hard to speak. I’d never had to kill anyone before, let alone announce his death in front of such a crowd. One glance at Tiny gave me the strength I needed to continue.
“Drum is guilty of killing one of us. He is responsible for the death of Little Dog.” I announced. Dog lent me strength as well, standing tall beside me as I delivered the sentence.
Drum laughed and cried at once. “I am guilty.” He sobbed. “Kill me and be done with it.”
The Emperor drew his sword and handed it to Kalb. “This justice is administered in accordance with my will. Let it be done.”
“Wait!” Drum shouted, wheeling around to look at us all. His eyes were blurry and feverish. His chains rattled on his feet and ankles.
The Emperor froze, his sword still held out for Kalb’s waiting hands. “Speak.”
“What of my dog? What of Bear?” Drum asked.
“He will be allowed to live. If it is his will to live on, he may bond with another.” The Emperor explained.
Drum nodded sadly. “Thank you.” He managed to croak.
“The instrument of my justice.” The Emperor continued, letting Kalb take his blade this time.
Kalb carried it over to me, with Teeth following at his heels. Dog tensed beside me, as if this were wrong. I held out my hands anyway, taking the blade when it was offered.
I stared at the blade. It felt alien in my hands. Wrong. It was a finely-crafted blade, worth more than anything I’d ever touched, but it wasn’t right. I looked at Dog. He looked at me. He seemed to shake his head, but that was a very human description for the senses I felt coming from him.
“Emperor, if I might?” This had to be done right.
“What is it you require, executioner?” The Emperor asked a little impatiently. He was used to his will being carried out promptly when he asked.
“Drum is one of us, as much dog as human.” I explained. “If I might? Could I kill him in the manner of our kind? He is chained and being executed with a weapon. Should he not be killed while unbound, free in death if not life? And should I not kill him with my bare hands?”
At this, even some of the Emperor’s guards shifted uneasily. The Emperor looked dumbfounded. “The sword offers a clean death. It is merciful. What you suggest is crueler, is it not?” The Emperor looked to his advisor. “Kalb?”
Kalb looked at me, both surprised and a little afraid. “If it is their way?”
“Shall we ask Drum?” I suggested.
The Emperor looked uncomfortable at this, but asked anyway. “Drum. You have heard your options. Will you be executed unchained, falling under the hands of this man, or do you want to be put down quickly with my own blade?”
Drum looked up at me, his eyes focusing, if just for a moment. His eyes went to the sword, then back to me. “Kill me like a dog. Kill me with your own claws and teeth.”
It felt right. I looked to the Emperor for permission. He nodded, so I handed the sword back to Kalb. With a flick of the Emperor’s hands, the auburn guards unchained Drum and backed away quickly. Yet if they expected him to attack or attempt to flee, they were disappointed.
Drum made no move to escape. Instead, he rubbed his wrists and settled onto his knees on the sand. He looked up to me. “Do it.”
I nodded and looked to Dog. Dog tensed beside me, knowing what was coming next.
It started as a tingle along my scalp, a burning that spread through my body. The hairs on my neck stood up. I felt pain in my fingertips as my nails elongated. My face began to ache, and I felt my features distort into a half muzzle. My eyes blurred and then came into incredible focus. My muscles tightened like steel wires strung taut across my bones.
Kalb stiffened beside me. Perhaps he’d never seen someone else do what he could. I glanced at him, seeing myself mirrored in his eyes. His eyes glowed yellow, as if just seeing me change was a contagious thing that he was just barely holding back. At his side, Teeth stood apprehensively, cowed by my presence.
The Emperor stood stock still, his jaw clenched tight. I saw him nod, but the smell of fear coming from around the gallery was terribly sweet. Few had seen a man come so close to beast before, perhaps not even the Emperor himself.
I took a step over to Drum, who lifted his chin, offering his neck for slicing. He looked up suddenly, meeting my beastly gaze. “Take care of Bear.” He whispered.
Then I tore out his throat. My claws ripped through his flesh with ease. His shredded voice box bubbled and whistled. His eyes bulged, and he hit the ground, bleeding out into the sand.
As he gasped his last, I threw my head back and howled. A chorus of barks and howls erupted from the gallery: all of Pack Sefr and Kalb as well. Dogs and boys, we made an awful racket in the still night.
Distantly, I felt something in that moment, a connection. Had Nokomi felt me? Had I felt her?
When it was over, I bowed to the Emperor, and then I bowed once more to my pack. They returned the bow.
I let go of the beast, for now.
Someday soon, I would need it again, and I would call it.
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