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 guards outside the north gates relayed my message to the instructors, who came at once.
“Let him out.” Green ordered. “Only him. His dog stays on that side of the gate.”
I frowned at that. Did they really think I would attack them? What would I gain from that? Was that how far they trusted me now? Only I was permitted out into the gallery. The four instructors surrounded me with a dozen guards ringing us in.
I glanced around, but saw no sign of the Emperor or of Kalb.
“What have you all decided?” Green inquired. A worried look flashed over his features before he clamped down on it. The look vanished, and once again he was all business.
I regarded the four nearly-identical faces. They were all grave as I began to explain what we had decided, and they grew more severe as I finished. “I will execute Drum personally. Then, we will separate Tiny and Drum’s dog, Bear, so they have a chance to bond. We don’t want to lose Tiny.”
“How does he know about that?” Red hissed at Green.
“Sardar told you?” Green looked incredulous.
“We all know.” I assured them.
“There were mistakes at the beginning, Go.” Grey offered apologetically. “We were learning. It only happened once, and we have changed the way we do things since then.”
“Maybe it was a mistake, but there will be more changes.” I smiled secretively.
“Oh?” Green’s eyes narrowed.
“I will explain what’s going to happen when the Emperor and his advisor are present.”
“You will explain…” Red scoffed. “You will explain nothing to the Emperor! You are here as a servant of the Emperor! You will do his bidding.”
I shrugged. “That may be true, but he will hear my demands, or we will no longer participate. None of us will.”
“We?” Blue asked. A look dawned on his face, and I think he got it far before the others. He must have realized that we were united.
Red snorted a laugh. “You mean you and your new little crew? Pack Panj is a small piece of this place. How dare you presume to speak for them all.”
I shook my head. “Panj is no more, Red. We are Sefr.”
“Sefr? There is no Pack Sefr.” Red replied.
“We are all Sefr now. All or nothing.” I repeated.
Blue put a restraining hand on Red’s forearm when he looked as if he might say more. “Red... Stop.”
“What do you mean stop? How dare this upstart tell us what to do? We are the leaders of this place.” Red insisted.
“Not anymore.” I said defiantly. I was feeling bold, and I must admit there was a fair chance a smirk stole across my face.
Red’s face flushed and he made as if to hit me, but there was a bark from across the gallery, in the second floor box. Red turned to find a pair of yellow eyes glaring down on him from across the sand. The four instructors froze.
“Things are going to change.” Green muttered.
Kalb, satisfied that the aggression had ended, turned on his heels and marched off from the gallery. Only minutes later, he emerged from the south gates with the Emperor at his side. This time, there were no royal guards with them.
The Emperor strode purposefully across the sand, hand on his sword hilt. He spoke in low tones to Kalb as he went, low enough that even I could not hear. Clearly, he was a man used to our abilities and limitations. It raised his worth in my esteem, but I still could not forgive him for putting me here, for separating me from Nokomi, even if she was his daughter.
My four instructors lowered their heads and bowed, Red deepest of all, as the Emperor took his place beside us. I mirrored their bows. Kalb and Teeth waited beside Emperor Baraz, waiting for him to speak first.
“You have come to a consensus? A decision has been made?” The Emperor asked of me. He was straight to the point, not one to waste time.
“The packs have come together as one to support my decision.” I let the implications of that settle in.
“And?” The Emperor asked.
“I will execute Drum.” I lifted my chin and dared him to deny me.
“You would do this yourself?” The Emperor looked surprised at this.
He gave me a hard look, as if wondering if I could do this thing, or maybe wondering how it would change me to do so. “And if I tell you that he is too valuable to lose?”
“I would tell you that you are mistaken. Then I would kill him anyway at some point in the near future.”
The Emperor looked to his advisor and frowned. “Quite a bloodthirsty little boy we have here, is it not?”
Kalb’s eyebrow rose and his mouth twitched into a smile beneath his beard. “It appears so.”
“It is what you made me.” I explained.
The Emperor turned his gaze to the four instructors then. “Do you hear him? He says I, through you and this place, have made a murderer of him.”
“Emperor…” Green began.
“Silence!” The Emperor growled. “I will not hear your half-hearted explanations. I will not hear excuses. I know of the many mistakes that have occurred in this place. I know that we need to make changes.”
He took a deep breath then continued, “I need men that can make hard choices, and I need loyalty. What I do not need is murderers made from alley brats.”
“It is loyalty that compels this murder, Emperor, loyalty to my pack.” I explained.
“And which pack is that?” Kalb wondered.
I grinned toothily. “Pack Sefr. We are all, or we are nothing.”
Kalb whispered something to the Emperor, and the Emperor’s eyes swept back my way. He said nothing for a long moment, and then spoke to Kalb instead. “These boys have value, but only if they turn out as I need them. I may need them to kill without hesitation, but only when directed, and only in the service of this kingdom. I need someone here that I can trust to make sure these boys are trained as I need.”
“You are asking me?” Kalb looked from the Emperor back to me, appraisingly.
“You will begin dividing your attention between here and the capital. At least a week a month will have to be spent here, more at first.”
“Emperor,” Kalb looked alarmed, “we are about business of the highest importance in the capital. My absence will mean…”
“I will make do without you, Kalb. It is not forever, and I know I can count on you being there when it is most important.”
I recalled something of the conversation I’d had with Kalb when I’d been under arrest. When would the next attempt on the Emperor’s life come? Would we be ready by then? Would thwarting the next assassination be part of what we would be called to do?
Kalb shook his head but looked resigned to do as told. Teeth settled onto the sand beside him, as if already getting comfortable with the place.
“There is more, Emperor.” I announced. I wasn’t sure how much more I could push my luck, but this was the time, if ever. Who could say when he would next visit. It might be months, even years before I saw his face again.
“I’m not sure I want to hear more from you.” The Emperor declared. I waited. We all did. Finally, the Emperor sighed and waved his hand. “Say your piece, then.”
I took a breath and then launched into my plan, “This place has been segregated into groups that caused divisions and strife among us. We have all joined into a new pack, a single pack to serve you. As a united pack, we must demand that the instruction here changes. We need to adjust instruction to create cooperation and growth, not vicious competition. Each of us should be able to stand on our own when needed, but it is as a collective group that we are strongest. That is how we should be used.”
“This one thinks to explain strategy to me.” The Emperor laughed.
“And yet he is not entirely wrong.” Kalb pulled at his beard.
“This one has shown a strength of leadership. The others look up to him.” Red reluctantly admitted.
“I will set Kalb to reorganizing this place. As I understand, you are the most advanced student here, in terms of your special abilities. I will expect you to work along with him and these four instructors to redesign the instruction to fit my needs.”
“Yes, Emperor.” I sketched a hasty bow.
“Now, he’s obedient.” The Emperor laughed.
“But there is another matter, that of Drum’s dog.” Kalb said soberly. “What will become of the beast with his master dead?”
“We will give him the chance to bond to Tiny. We hope they will bond and save both dog and boy.” I announced.
“Can that work?” The Emperor asked.
“It is exceedingly rare, but there are precedents.” Kalb answered, giving me a look that told me he knew about Sardar, and how could he not?
The Emperor nodded. “Let us pray it works, so we do not lose two boys and two dogs from this incident. That would be a tragic waste. Give them whatever it needs to make it happen. Make it a priority.”
“Then it is all decided?” Green asked, almost meekly.
The Emperor nodded. “Let it be done this evening. Prepare the gallery for an execution. Let the blood stain the sands of this place as a reminder of what has happened. He is one of ours, and he will be buried on the premises. He does not die with honor, but we must respect what it costs to make this place better.”
“Emperor!” The four instructors said almost simultaneously. They broke away, leaving to see to his will.
That left only Kalb, his dog, the Emperor, and myself. The Emperor regarded me warily. “I still remember you from that first day…”
“In the alley.” I finished.
He smiled at the memory. “You had bravely killed that desert cat. That beast was easily the size of you and your dog put together.”
I touched the scar across my forehead, remembering. “It was a good fight.”
“You were so defiant, even then. You have steel within you, Go.”
“And fire.” I replied softly.
The Emperor reached over and touched my forehead. It was hard not to flinch away from his touch, but I held very still. Dog tensed on the other side of the gate, but there was no harm in the touch. The Emperor’s eyes closed for a moment, and a smile crossed his face. I felt a tingle through my scalp as his calloused hand rested on my forehead.
“And fire.” The Emperor agreed.
Kalb swallowed audibly and looked away when the Emperor glanced over at him. Had he not told his master of my connection to Nokomi? Still, the Emperor did not seem displeased.
“I hope that this thing tonight does not haunt you too badly, Go. You cannot kill a man and not bear the weight of it. It is not something done lightly, but you have already said you would do it, so I will not relieve you of this duty. This is just one of the costs of leadership.”
“I will do my best to bear it.” I bowed my head.
“See that you do.”
The Emperor and Kalb left then, leaving me standing there. Teeth smiled at me, a dog’s smile. He came over and let me rub between his ears, and then he left, following the sandy footprints left by his master and his master’s master.
I watched them leave, and then went back to the gates, where the guards allowed me back into the north wing. Dog greeted me happily. He’d been anxious behind the gates, but his worries had been unfounded.
I felt relieved. Everything I’d asked for had been given to me. Except, I’d have to kill Drum in just a short while. I’d asked for it. I’d demanded it. Now I had to kill for the first time.
I wasn’t sure I was built for murder, even if it was justified. But I’d have to if I wanted to get back to Nokomi.
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.
“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.
Mongrel’s mutt recovered, but limped still. I suspected there was a break, but it would heal. Mongrel knew his animal best. He spent the better part of a week resting, skipping classes to stay in an almost constant state of meditation. His whole reduced pack sat with him in the evenings. Even Pack Yek sat with them one night, making a second circle that surrounded the four members of Chahar as they watched over the wounded dog. I’m not certain that it helped, but they kept Mongrel fed and focused on getting better.
I knew what it was to share pain with my animal. Dog and I had both been hurt before, and the healing always went fastest when we both experienced it. It is nearly impossible to fully explain the sensation with one who has not bonded with another in the same way. Perhaps a parent knows what it is to watch a child suffer, to want to take on some of their pain. But what if they really could? That is what it is for us of the Old Blood.
For days and weeks, Drum was a festering sore on our collective hides. He remained bitterly alone, although he attended classes with Chahar. He was clearly apart from them, but he had nowhere else to go, and the instructors seemed dumbfounded by the changes, however warranted.
They had no procedures for a lone student, one shunned by his pack and shut out from socializing with the other packs. It wasn’t what was supposed to happen, so they went on as if nothing was wrong, and that did nothing to deal with the problem. Drum grew more bitter, more withdrawn. Bear snapped at everyone.
They began feeding him alone, but it had been quite the conversation the first night when meal time came. They’d sent for Green, who had demanded to know what was going on. No one would say anything about the ostracized former leader of Chahar. Green even cast his accusing eyes at me, but he relented when my whole pack defended me.
In the end, they’d started sending a sixth basket of food, a small one, with Drum and Bear’s food in it. He’d become Pack Sefr without intending to do so. The nickname stuck, even when they went to classes. The other boys would always joke about having to battle against Pack Sefr, but as vicious as Drum was becoming, no one really wanted to do it.
It was into this mess that the Emperor walked. He came for an unannounced inspection. We didn’t know what was going on. We just knew that we were all woken up early one morning by Grey and we were told to put on our dress uniforms and gather in the gallery.
“What’s going on?” Everyone asked at once.
“The Emperor is here!” Grey hissed. “He’s trying to see how his investment has paid off. You all need to be dressed and presentable in fifteen minutes. Make it happen.” He clapped, setting off a commotion of dressing, washing, and shoe-tying.
We all hurried to the bathroom to wash up, comb our hair with our fingers, pee, and get ourselves presentable, all of us except Drum. The energy was palpable. It was like preparing for war, a war against being found lacking.
Back in our rooms, we struggled with tying shoes. Killer was the best at it. His thick fingers were surprisingly nimble. He tied my shoes and everyone else’s in the room. We looked each other over, straightening collars and hair for each. I imagine that all of our preening was pathetic compared to what real soldiers would have done, but we did our best.
Before we were really ready, we were led out into the gallery. We fell into ranks by pack, arranging ourselves in order of experience, with Yek at one end and our pack at the other.
The sun was morning sun was just creeping up over the horizon, threatening to spill its light over the second floor walls of the gallery. The air was humid, but chilly, and the ground was damp with the morning dew. We fidgeted under the watchful gaze of our three instructors: Red, Blue, and Grey. They seemed as nervous as we were. Green was nowhere to be seen.
Grey gave us a few reminders as we awaited our inspections. “Remember, you are servants of the Emperor. Display yourselves as worthy of his attention, but remember your manners! You will not speak to him unless spoken to. You will answer any and every question quickly and fully.”
Red’s pep talk followed Grey’s. “Display yourselves as soldiers. Stand tall. Stand proud!” He paced up and down our row, fixing collars, straightening shirts, and demanding that no fewer than three pairs of shoes were retied properly. He made several sit their dogs at attention. According to him, dogs were not to laze about in the presence of the Emperor.
I smiled at this. Did they not understand animals? Dogs lazed about most of the day. It was in their natures. They stood at attention for a reason and quickly became relaxed when there was a lack of a reason.
Blue had no words. He merely eyed the whole lot of us critically. He was as quiet and serious as the auburn guards, all of which seemed to be present and on the grounds. The auburn guards nervously shifted their stances, slight twitches that would have been unnoticeable to some without such sharp senses as we had.
We stood in that humid morning air, smelling breakfast being cooked somewhere in the south wing. More than one stomach growled. Tiny laughed, but quickly quieted once more when Blue’s gaze shifted his way.
Eventually, the south gates opened, permitting a troop of no less than a score of armored soldiers. They fanned out, ten going each way. These were professional killers, and they were attired as such. They moved with predatory grace that exhibited their obvious skill.
They wore spiked helmets, with chainmail draping down over their shoulders and neck. Nose guards from the helmets and red scarf across the face obscured all but the soldiers’ eyes. Their armor was layers of leather and scales, with the scales set more heavily into the chest and shoulders of their armor. Layered leather skirting protected their hips and thighs. Some of them wore vambraces over their wrists. Those ones carried bronze-tipped throwing spears, with several extra spears holstered across their backs. The others wore heavy gloves and carried pairs of curved swords, one at each hip.
Clearly, this show of force was to dissuade any of us, like me, from challenging the Emperor as I had defied Green just a few weeks back. The Emperor entered with Green on his left and Kalb on his right. Another ten soldiers followed him in. From watching them, I knew that in moments, the three groups could fold in and create a deadly triangle around their Emperor, one that our concerted effort would likely not succeed in breaking.
The Emperor was much as I recalled – exactly like his statue, if smaller. The statue was, of course, far beyond human scale, probably double his actual size. He wore his conical head wrap and his layered coats and wide pants. Belted over his gilded coat was that same curved blade I remembered from the day I met Nokomi.
I craned my neck, hoping beyond all reason that the Emperor had brought his daughter with him on this inspection. But why would he? Why would he bring her to this secret school full of dogs and boys? There was no hint of her scent on the wind.
The Emperor strode out to five long paces in front of us and regarded us all with his shrewd gaze. “This is what I am spending so much money on? This rabble of dogs and underfed boys?”
Kalb laughed. “Was I not also an underfed boy when we met? Have I not proven my worth, Majesty?”
The Emperor’s face crinkled into a smile. “Very true, old friend.” He clapped Kalb across the shoulder. Then he reached down and rubbed Teeth between the ears. Teeth’s tongue lolled out happily.
Tiny and I exchanged gazes. Blue’s hawk eyes swiveled our way again. We snapped back to attention.
The Emperor paced the length of our class, from Yek to Panj, and back again. He stopped here and there, inquiring about breeds of specific dogs. On his way past our pack, he locked eyes with me for a moment and looked as if he might say something.
Instead, the Emperor turned to Tiny and smiled. “That is quite a small animal beside you. What is his name?”
L.D. growled, baring all of his small teeth at the Emperor, shocking Grey, but eliciting a laugh from the Emperor. Tiny sketched a clumsy bow and did his best to answer. “L.D., Emperor. His name is L.D., for Little Dog.”
“Fierce, isn’t he?” The Emperor favored both dog and boy with a warm smile.
“I think he likes you, Sir.” Tiny suggested. L.D. seemed to comply with a bug-eyed snarl.
The Emperor laughed aloud, a deep belly laugh. “I’d hate to see what he’d do if he didn’t like me.”
“Would you now, your highness?” A voice drawled.
We all turned to the source of the voice, finding Drum strolling out from the north gates with his beast of a dog, Bear. Guards all through the gallery put hands to weapons, but none drew. They would not, not without orders.
“Who is this one?” The Emperor inquired, curious about the one who walked out when he pleased and spoke when not spoken to.
“That one is Drum.” Green said, matter-of-factly. His voice was tight, and his expression most severe. He nearly waved the auburn guards to surround them, but the Emperor held up his hand to stop any such thing from happening.
“Ahh, so this is the one who despoiled my daughter’s statue.” The Emperor looked Drum over appraisingly, his eyes lingering longest on the beast beside him.
Drum looked surprised that the Emperor had heard of his exploits, but he didn’t seem to care. He’d shown up in his street rags, refusing to put on the uniforms as we all had. He went barefoot, true to himself. His dog, every massive pound of him, bristled at the guards.
I had a sick feeling in my stomach as Drum sidled up just beyond us to join the line, putting himself in the sixth position, as a group of one, rather than trying to retake his place with Chahar. He truly was showing himself to be Pack Sefr. Bear did not sit. He stood, swiveling his large head back and forth, growling at everyone.
“So you’ve heard about that?” Drum laughed. “We’re all dogs here.”
The Emperor favored him with a hard stare, but Drum’s fevered eyes were wild and unfocused. He didn’t wilt under that gaze as he might have once. “We piss on things, my Emperor. It’s what we do.”
“It’s what you do.” Tiny muttered just loud enough for everyone to hear. L.D. yipped in agreement.
“Yes. Making messes. It’s what we do.” Drum smiled sickly, turning to Tiny. He signaled to Bear, and the massive dog surged over, snapping L.D. up in his jaws. It was all of two steps for him. No one could have stopped him.
With a quick wet crunch, it was all over. L.D. was dead. Bear spat Tiny’s fierce little dog onto the sand. Broken. Lifeless.
Tiny dropped to his knees as if shot in the heart, going white in the face. A scream died in his throat, ending as a gurgle. His eyes rolled back in his head and he fainted right out, hitting the sand as if he’d been struck dead.
I felt a howl in the back of my throat, and everything started to happen all at once…
We had a week of peace, and most everyone got along. Scar was easily the most difficult person left in our wing, but he was only openly hostile if you bothered him. Left alone, he mostly just shot ugly looks at you from across the room. Then again, that might have just been because his scars made it impossible for him to actually smile.
Drum, on the other hand, was the type that sought out conflict. His pack had actually been pleasant for the week he was gone. And they’d been pretty agreeable they week prior to that, I’d also heard, but I’d been in my cell, so I couldn’t actually vouch for that.
When Drum was finally given medical clearance to leave his cell, we couldn’t help but wonder how that was affect his pack and the social climate of all the packs at the Kennel. He didn’t make us wait long to find out.
Drum strolled into the gates, already spitting angry. Unlike my return, he was not greeted by his pack mates. They were not eagerly waiting for his return. He also did not return as a victor but as a disgrace. He entered the halls of his former home after two weeks, finding no one there to greet him.
He had to walk past our room to get to Chahar’s room, and he caught a glimpse of Face sitting among us. His mouth fell open, and vile words failed to come at first. I couldn’t help but wonder what he thought, seeing us all in our clean, new clothes, gathered around tables. What a change it must have been, after having lived here for months on end, wearing rags and sleeping on piles of straw or old blankets.
“Just keep him. Worthless anyway.” He finally snorted.
Face looked at us, and we looked back at him. We collectively shrugged, and the five of us went back to talking about a stones game we’d played the day before, ignoring the swearing that slid from Drum’s mouth as he continued up the hall.
It was only a few moments later when we heard a commotion from Chahar’s room. The noise spilled out into the hallway, swearing and lots of shouting echoing for all to hear. It should have been expected, but it was still a surprise somehow.
I scrambled to my feet. I didn’t exactly like Chahar’s guys, but they were actually tolerable without Drum. I had a feeling they might even turn out to be decent, given enough time away from their feisty leader.
“What do you mean I’m not your leader?” Drum screamed, trying to push his way into the room.
Nose and Hound were holding him back. Mongrel wore a triumphant look. “You’ve pushed us around too long, Drum. You can take your place at the bottom of the pack, or you can go sleep in one of the other rooms. Maybe you can start your own new pack? Pack Sefr maybe?”
I blinked in surprise. They were throwing him out? I’d offered to step down, but my pack had kept me on. Chahar was ousting Drum, even threatening to throw him out entirely. This wasn’t the sort of thing that Drum would take lightly.
Tiny muttered something, completely amusement. “Pack Zero, eh?”
“Is that what Sefr means?” I wondered. It was not a word I’d heard before.
“Nothing. Zero.” Killer agreed.
“That’s pretty cold.” Face almost looked sorry for Drum. Almost.
“Who’s going to replace me? You, Mongrel?” Drum laughed haughtily.
Mongrel crossed his arms and lifted his chin proudly. “And what if I am?”
“I could take you apart where you stand.” Drum said threateningly.
“Maybe you could. The difference is that we’re not all fighting each other for your approval any more. Now, the four of us stand together, and the four of us can certainly take you down if Go could do it by himself.”
Drum’s whole body filled with rage. He flashed a look my way, sensing us in the halls, not that half of every pack wasn’t in the halls anyway. “You motherless sons of…”
He never got to finish his insult. Nose and Hound threw him backward into the wall. He rebounded and dropped to his knees. Drum had never been the largest boy, and he’d just recovered from a flogging. Now, that weakness was made apparent. He looked so small huddled behind his dog, who growled defensively.
Before, he’d always stood behind his massive dog and ruled with fear, but he couldn’t just run his mouth and stand behind his dog any longer. His pack wasn’t going to put up with his bullying and abuse.
“Get out, Drum. Stay in your own room. Maybe we’ll let you in tomorrow, if you beg.” Mongrel was a little too smug in his reply, and Drum, beaten or not, had some pride left.
Drum threw himself forward, and Bear followed. Drum tackled Mongrel to the ground and started pounding at his face with his fists while Bear took Mongrel’s mutt in his massive mouth and shook. The brown mutt yelped in pain, and when Bear shook him loose, the smaller dog sailed into the wall.
The remaining members of Chahar fell upon Drum, while the three dogs struggled to put up a fight against Bear. It got ugly. There was a lot of frustration and hate in that group, things that had festered too long. I longed to jump into this, but it was not my place. They needed to work it out.
In a short while, all five of them were beaten and bruised, but none worse than Mongrel’s mutt and Drum. Drum and Bear limped away to an empty room, beaten once more. For once, he was wordless and dead-eyed, except for the look of pure malice he shot my way. I’d been the one to first illustrate his vulnerability, and since then, things had certainly gone from bad to worse for him. Clearly, I was the one he’d blame most for his downfall.
“Welcome back, Drummy!” Tiny taunted as Drum retreated into his new room.
Drum paused to nod at Tiny, laughing hollowly. I shot Tiny a warning look, but the words were already out. Tiny had just made himself a target for all that hate, and he was a lot easier target than I was.
The rest of Chahar gathered in their room to tend to Mongrel’s mutt, who was in a bad way. I knew this wasn’t over. Drum wouldn’t let this be. It was just going to get worse, but I had no idea just how bad it would get.
Things went back to how they had been, to an extent. Many of the boys no longer knew what to do with themselves for their morning meal. It was no longer a fight. Perhaps they still needed to work out some aggression. Dogs were meant to be hunters, and now everything was just handed to us. Maybe that had been part of the purpose behind the feedings, however demeaning they had been.
We wandered the yard after our meals, and I took those opportunities to run around the perimeter of the yard. After a week of idleness, it felt wonderful to stretch our legs. Dog and I ran with abandon, enjoying the exertion. We worked on building our endurance. From time to time, Legs or some of our other pack mates joined us, but they ran because we did, not for the love of it. They ran as if it might help them understand us, and, in doing so, better understand how to become the beast.
Others watched us. Pack Yek had developed something akin to reverence for Dog and I. They watched us with the careful study of a student with a master, or possibly that of a doctor with a patient exhibiting strange symptoms.
We excelled in our classes, defeating Pack Chahar with ease in Red and Blue’s classes. With Drum recovering and still absent, they were rudderless. They were also a lot less cruel. Our five defeated their four resoundingly, but I made sure we did it with grace, as Pack Se had showed us. If we were to make allies of our enemies, it would not be through cruelty. We had to show them that our way was superior.
Red took the events of last week as a learnable moment, offering us his advice for what we should take away from the events. He saved the best of his speech for my first time back. “What happened before was unfortunate, but it was a lesson in many ways. I saw much that was admirable, and some that was not. I saw packs standing up for each other, working together to defeat common foes. That is the way of the army. I applaud you for this loyalty and strength of character.”
“I also saw some disrespecting the Emperor or those he has placed above us. This is never acceptable.” He paused to give me a look, as if I didn’t know he spoke mostly of Drum and I. “There is a chain of command. Everyone must follow orders. Even an Emperor is ultimately responsible to his people. We must all do our part.”
“I have also seen changes come to this place. While you might not always understand our methods, you must all understand that we are honing you to be weapons. When a blacksmith fires and pounds his heated metal, he does not apologize. He does not worry about being too tough on it. He works to shape and make that raw metal into something better, a tool or a sword. He cannot do that without pounding and shaping and sharpening what he makes. That is what we do to you all. We are in the process of making all of you into the finest weapons in the Emperor’s arsenal.”
I wanted to smile at this, but I kept it to myself. He spoke the truth as he knew it, but what they had was a problem not with their methods, but with their teachers. It was like having a wrestler teach a dancer, or a baker teach a woodworker. These were soldiers. They were not dog men like us.
In a couple weeks, I’d surpassed all of these boys in at least one way. I’d naturally been able to do what these teachers could not teach me. They might backpedal and try to explain their harsh methods, but there was something to be said for innate talent and instinct.
Blue had a similar lecture, but his was more about the loyalty to all members of the royal family and the respect we owed our rulers. He seemed more sympathetic with what I had done than Red, but only up to a point. It was nearly unforgiveable in his eyes to attack Green’s authority, and he spared me no measure of disdain for what I’d done.
Still, I was at the top of his class both times in the week. It didn’t matter if we faced Pack Chahar or Pack Do. Something had just clicked with Panj. I was a level beyond, and standing behind me, Panj was unbeatable. Tiny stood taller and looked fiercer than ever. Legs was confident and deadly quick. Killer was a mountain of assuredness. Face was with us, rounding out our group as if he’d always been one of us. The five of us were a force.
Grey was the only instructor to give us no lecture. Instead, he reviewed our clothing situation. He’d seen fit to give everyone in the program standardized uniforms, not just for when we came to his class, but for our time at the Kennel in general. We now had dress uniforms for his classes and any official events that might crop up in the future, and we had everyday uniforms… including shoes.
I felt odd wearing shoes. I hated them. I decided to never wear them, unless I was required to. Sandals, I could somewhat manage, but the soles of my feet had become like rough leather, like the pads of Dog’s feet. I could walk on just about anything, except for glass or thorns, and I’d be fine. Still, I made an effort and wore the strange things to Grey’s classes at least. The rest of the time, I ran free and barefoot, connected to the ground wherever I went.
The last class of the week was Red’s class with Pack Se. Bull had avoided me for the week, but he had been around. I’d seen him when we washed up or when we played stones, but we hadn’t spoken since my return. I’d seen him in the yard, but he never came up to me. He just watched, obviously still trying to decide what he thought of me or coming up with something to say to me. It was fine. He would speak his mind in time. That was the sort of person he was.
That’s how it would have gone, until Red forced the issue.
I faced off against Bull in the center ring, with everyone gathered around. It brought to mind the first time I’d been in this ring, facing Bull this time instead of Drum.
“Engage each other.” Red instructed, seeing as how Bull and I just stared at each other in a battle of gazes rather than fists and feet.
“We are.” Bull replied, folding his arms over his broad chest. He regarded me as if I might burst into a beast at any moment. Did he still see something of his friend in my features?
“Yeah.” I said, crossing my arms over my considerably smaller chest. I looked at him as if he were my friend, and I was confused as to why he looked at me thus. It wasn’t a stretch. I understood his caution, but not his complete refusal to speak with me. Was he worried I would seem rational and sensible now?
“Then fight now, or I’ll start shooting you both with real arrows.” Red growled.
Bull obliged, walking forward to lock arms for a grapple. Like he’d trained me in the rooms during our spare time, we fought. Except, he either held back, or I’d gained something.
He pushed, and I held him back. He pulled, and I resisted. He tried to throw me twice, but I always kept my feet. He hooked a leg behind my ankle, but I saw it coming. Eyes on his, I could see into him. I knew what he would do.
He disengaged abruptly. “I can’t fight him.”
“What do you mean? Those are your orders, Bull. Engage!” Red demanded.
Bull shook his head. “I can’t.”
Red climbed up onto the ring and put himself between us. He poked Bull in the chest with a finger and stabbed another one in the air in my direction. “You can fight him, and you will!”
Bull shook his head again. “He knows me too well. He reads my every move, and I can’t see what he’ll do. It’s like he’s in my head. I don’t know how, but he’s doing it.”
Red turned to me. I saw a flash of anger cross his eyes, and I knew what he would do. He whirled back toward Bull, slapping him full across the face. It was such a sudden and surprising move that it dropped Bull to the ground. He looked up at our instructor in shock, hand going to his stinging face.
“Get up, Bull. Fight. Use your anger. Anger feeds the transformation.”
Bull began to stand, only to get slapped down once more. This time, anger registered across his face, not shock. His bulldog growled from the ground, snapping at Red’s ankles, but he could not reach, and he was being held back from jumping up onto the ring. When Bull stood for a third time, he blocked the incoming slap and barked at Red.
Red smiled. “Good. Now go fight your opponent.”
Bull’s eyes flashed, but he still had a hint of hesitation as he charged me. I felt my muscles tense in anticipation. There was a hint of the beast in me as I dodged aside and struck him on the side. He grunted but kept coming. I struck again, harder. Still he came after me, arms like tangling spider webs!
What he lacked in speed, he made up in durability. Tenacious as his dog, he kept trying to close on me. I struck again and again, wearing him down, but he wore me down as well. We grappled, fighting with elbows, knees, and fists. When I finally broke free, his eyes were swollen. My bottom lip was split, my jaw ached, and one of my elbows throbbed. Both of us were panting and bleeding.
He grinned through his swollen eyes and threw his head back. He howled. Suddenly, all of the dogs in the room began to howl, led by Bull’s thick-necked dog. I felt something then, a tickle on the back of my neck. It was the infectious feeling of a pack, of a greater pack than I’d known.
Dog let out a long keening howl, the way of his breed. I didn’t even know that I was doing it with him until we all stopped, throats raw. They were all staring at me, both packs and our instructor.
Red took in the sight of us all, knowing he was on to something, but not quite sure how to bottle it all up and bring it back on demand. He looked very pleased with himself. He congratulated the two of us on our efforts and set about trying to repeat his success with other pairs of fighters, which he spread about the room.
With Red’s attention elsewhere, Bull nodded to me, lowering his head. His mouth formed a silent bark. I had not lost him after all. In fact, I’d brought him in even closer. Pack Se was all but mine.
Did Red even realize that he was setting me up as the leader of all the packs? Would he care?
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.
I woke in a cage in a darkened room, feeling as if I’d been thoroughly beaten. I probably had been, but my memory was hazy. I couldn’t see much beyond the dark, damp walls. What part of the complex was I in? I didn’t recognize it. Even the smells were strange.
I smacked my lips, disliking the cottony feeling of my tongue. My head ached along with the rest of my face. The areas around my jaw and nose were especially tender, as if the bones had been broken and had recently reknitted. My fingertips were bleeding. So was the slash on my side, where the halberd had cut along my ribs. It was crusty and stuck to my shirt, what was left of my shirt anyway. I also had a crossbow wound in my thigh, a dog bite on my ankle, and an impressive collection of bruises and scrapes.
I’d had worse.
I smiled, remembering the alley fight with the desert cat from my childhood. “That was something, eh?” I spoke to Dog, except Dog wasn’t there.
Panic set in. I lurched up from my prone position, forgetting that I was in a cage. My head slammed into the top of the cage. I howled with rage and shook the bars of the cage in my fists. This just made me madder. I screamed until I panted, and I pulled at the bars until sweat and saliva both dripped from me.
“DOG!” I screamed over and over and over again, screaming myself hoarse.
Distantly, I thought I heard a bark, a yelp of recognition. There was a tickle at the back of my mind, a presence. I knew it was him, but he was not here, and he was as hurt as I was. We needed to be together. Why was he not with me? In my life, I could not ever recall having been separated, and it was a horrible sensation.
I heard a clank from the door. I ceased my screaming and struggling, catching my breath as I watched to see who came in. I smelled him before I saw him, although his outline was also familiar.
“Kalb.” I hissed.
“Go.” Kalb replied, closing the door behind him. I heard it bolt and lock from the other side. He stepped over to my cage and settled him onto the floor in the manner of someone older and more tired than he looked.
In the dim light, I focused on his yellow eyes, which seemed to glow from within. They were not so yellow as they were when he grew angry, when he became more than just a man, as I had. In his eyes, I could see a faint reflection of my face, and my eyes were no longer yellow.
“You’ve made quite a mess of things.” He sighed.
I laughed. “I have? Did I ask to be put here? Did I ask to be treated like this? You did all of that.”
Kalb smiled beneath his beard, teeth flashing. “Boy, you have no idea the opportunities you’re being given. On the street, what were you? You were a thief or a scavenger at best. Here, you can be something!”
I shook my head. “I was something. I was a pack.”
“And what did that amount to? You were untrained, a waste of the gift you were born with. You could be so much more than any of these boys…”
Kalb shook his head. “You don’t understand. What you did yesterday, it’s something that I can do, but that took me years to learn. I cannot understand how you’ve done it so soon. Your abilities… they will be amazing.”
“I don’t want to be a beast.”
“But you’ve always been one. You just didn’t realize it. Like you, I was a feral child once, too. Only I didn’t save the Emperor’s daughter. I saved him.”
“You saved the Emperor?” This was news to me. It’s something I hadn’t imagined. Was that why he served the Emperor? Were they pack?
Kalb nodded. “I met him in the market after his people had conquered our lands, although conquer is a rough and inaccurate word for what really happened. We were a scattered, fractured people. We squabbled and fought over scraps of territory. His people came in and united us under their banner. We are more under them than we were when free. Our people have prospered more in the last twenty years than they had in the two hundred before they came among us.”
“And for that I owe your Emperor my service?”
“Oh, I think we know more than that, you and I.” Kalb laughed. “A dog can’t have two masters.”
I swallowed hard. Did he know? “Was that why the tests…” I trailed off.
“The perfume. The girl. The statues. I needed to know for certain.”
His eyes took on a look of concern, a surprising emotion that I could smell upon him. “Politics are strange, convoluted games, Go. I’ve said that I serve the Emperor. Like you, I am bonded to him. When he was a boy, someone tried to have him killed. I saved him, and he bonded me that day. We shared blood. I feel its fire in my veins to this day, even years later, the same as you feel hers.”
“Yes. Nokomi, his daughter. All of these boys are going to be sworn and loyal to the Emperor, but what happens when the Emperor changes or dies? Who will their loyalty transfer to?”
“Why would the Emperor die?”
“Remember how there was an attempt on his life as a boy? Those have never stopped. Every year on that day, another attempt is made. He has been fortunate. He has always avoided death, sometimes at a personal cost. Other times I have borne the pain intended for him, but we have always come out alive.”
“But that can’t last forever.” I surmised.
“No, it can’t. One day, our luck will run out.”
“Then find who is doing it and stop them!” If the Emperor died, what would that mean for Nokomi?
A flash of teeth again, a vicious smile from Kalb. “We have not been lax in our attempts to find the source of the assassins. Still years later, we’ve not been able to root out the true source. Explanations have been offered, but I don’t like them. There is one who hides his true intentions.”
I narrowed my eyes at him. Something wasn’t being said here. “You know who it is.”
“I believe I know the real culprit, but the Emperor would never believe me.”
I sniffed. “Family.”
Kalb regarded me with surprise once again. “It is not Nokomi or her sister. I trust his wife as well. I won’t mention names now, because I don’t know how far to trust you. There are things you should not know until you are ready.”
“What is it you want from me then?”
“I want you to swear to serve the Emperor.”
“You said I cannot serve two masters…”
He nodded. “Exactly, but you might serve your true master and the Emperor while the interests of the two coincide. There will come a day when the Emperor will die, hopefully of old age. At that time, the army we’re making here will transfer their loyalty to someone else, the new Emperor.”
“Who will that be?”
“The Empress may take control for a while, but there will have to be an Emperor. It will be a new consort for the Empress, the husband of one of his daughters, or another relative.” He hesitated, as if to say more, but then he remembered who he was speaking to. “Nokomi is the youngest daughter, so she is the least threatening of the three ladies, but you’ve already bonded with her. I want you to protect her, no matter what. I want you to be her personal guardian, all the while pretending to serve only the Emperor.”
“You want me to lie to the Emperor about my loyalty to him? Don’t you serve him?”
“Don’t be daft.” He said sharply. “I am serving him by setting you as a true guardian to his most beloved child. He loves the Empress Anahita as his mate, and he loves his firstborn daughter, Neema, but Nokomi is his heart. That girl can do no wrong in his eyes, despite her rebellious nature. I am protecting her to serve him.”
“She is pack.” I said softly.
“I know, Go.” He sighed. “I know.” If anyone understood this, it was him.
“But what do I do about this place?”
“You learn. I need you to endure this punishment. You attacked a guard, a servant of the Emperor. You need to be punished for that.”
“But being separated from Dog!”
Kalb held up his hands. “It was necessary. Even unconscious, you couldn’t return to human until you were separated. You don’t have the control you need. You will learn, and someday you will be able to become the beast without losing the brain of a man.”
“I need Dog.” I insisted.
“I know. He will be returned to you. You two can heal together, until your punishment is up.”
“Drum?” Had my rival been punished as well?
“He has been punished for disrespecting the Emperor’s daughter. He was whipped and forced to clean the statue.”
That was acceptable. It didn’t mean it would change him though. I knew his type. He’d look for a way to get his revenge. He was an ugly person. There was still the matter of my pack. “Panj?”
“Your pack, if they’ll still have you as leader, has grown. Face joined it. He wasn’t welcome in Chahar anymore.”
That was welcome news, at least. I liked Face. He was better suited to our pack than Chahar. Still, would my own pack want me back? “What if they don’t want me anymore?”
“Then you live apart. There are consequences to actions, Go. This might be one of them for you. No matter where you end up, you must still learn your lessons, beside them, if not with them. What you have is important. They will fear you, but they will want what you have. They will want to learn to do as you have. That is one of the reasons why we created the Kennel. You have more of the Old Blood in you than any of them, and it shows. Respect will come as you learn your lessons and grow more powerful. You don’t need their love.”
“Old Blood, that is this animal connection we have… Is that so different from what Nokomi’s people have? If they come from another land, then they don’t have the Old Blood in them?”
‘The Old Blood is strange to them. Even in our land, it is a widely forgotten remnant of our people’s first days in the world, when animals offered their minds to us, when we worked together to protect each other and live. That’s why they’re only just now trying to make use of it.” Kalb explained.
He traced a scar on his forearm. Was that where he’d been bonded? The scar on my forehead flared at the memory of Nokomi’s blood mixing with mine. “And Nokomi’s people?”
“What they have is the New Blood. It’s the power of blood and fire. You’ve felt it in your veins. They come from a harsh place, a place where fire was life. It became part of their family in particular. It is why they rule. Their blood is like fire. It is fire, if they want it to be. It can also bond people to them, as with you and I.”
I tried to understand all of this. It was a lot to take in. I was to serve the Emperor, while secretly serving his daughter instead. I would be her guardian and protector, but only if I made it through this place and learned to control my abilities.
“Go?” Kalb asked, seeing as how I’d gone silent.
“Do we have an understanding? Will you serve Nokomi?”
“You didn’t have to ask. It’s all I’ve ever wanted since I met her. I’ve only ever wanted to be beside her. She is pack.”
“There will come a time, I fear, when serving her might mean putting you at odds with the rest of the kingdom. Will you still serve her then?”
“Dog and I will serve her to our deaths. She is pack.” I repeated.
Kalb reached a hand toward the cage, grasping my hand where it was clasped around the bars. “Boy, I want to trust you. Do not betray my faith in you.”
Kalb laughed. “Your persistence is admirable. I will bring him here immediately.”
“And food. Water. Clothes.”
“Fine. It will be so. Now heal and learn your lessons well.”
“And you, will you be back?”
Kalb stared at me for a long moment, thinking. “I think I will, if I can, when there are lessons that these men can’t teach you. Know that I cannot come often. There are those that watch my comings and goings, and this place is still a secret.”
He hammered on the door with a fist. It was opened hurriedly. Even the guards here feared his wrath and moved quickly to do his will. What must that be like, I wondered?
After he left, I heard him in the halls, barking orders at the soldiers guarding my door. He called for Dog to be brought to me, along with food, water, and more. I settled back down into the straw of the cage and waited.
My excitement trickled through the bond I shared with Dog. He knew. We’d be together again soon. I knew his tail was wagging. I could feel it.
I’m not sure exactly how he knew, but Drum found me out there by the statue. Maybe someone told him. Maybe he just knew I’d go out there to see his handiwork. It didn’t matter, so long as he was there.
Drum strolled out, hands on his hips and his head thrown back in a haughty laugh. His giant dog came out beside him, carrying itself as all fur and muscle and threats. Pack Chahar filed out behind him, including Face, who had a blackening eye and scratches across his neck; his dog was limping. That only fueled the fires of my anger.
I cast a glance at Dog. He was with me. His eyes were resolute, rings of dark brown fury that were a perfect mirror to my own.
“Clean the statue now.” I ordered, pointing at Drum.
Drum laughed again, looking around at his crew as if he couldn’t believe I’d say such a thing. They all laughed, though their laughs were a forced echo of his.
“This is your one chance to do this without a fight.”
“Who are you going to fight, Go? You and your wild little dog have no chance against us. It’s six against one.”
I didn’t point out that one of theirs was hurt and likely wouldn’t fight me. I didn’t mention that my own pack would probably join me. I didn’t say that Bull, Red, and others might throw in on my side, if things came to it. I kept them all out of this. This was my fight. “I will take those odds. Will you?”
Drum scoffed. “You think that much of yourself, do you, new kid?” He stepped out onto the sand to make a point, clearing the gates and the tunnel that led back to our rooms.
I was done talking. Dog’s hackles raised. He put his head low and emitted a growl. I stepped forward, crouching. My fingers curled into claws, and I bared my teeth. The back of my neck tingled, hair standing up. My vision narrowed and every muscle in my body coiled tightly like a serpent ready to strike.
Drum looked unsure of himself for a moment, but he’d talked himself into this. His dog, Bear, led the way as always, leaving the scared little boy a half-step behind his beast. Still, that beast weighed nearly as much as Dog and I put together.
With a nod, I sent Dog to my left, circling around to the right flank, where Drum stood beside his dog, casting looks back at his pack, wondering why they weren’t exactly jumping in to help out. Had I been able to look at myself, I might not have wondered why.
I didn’t wait. I just struck. Drum had exactly enough time to open his eyes wider in surprise as my fist came sailing in, striking him across his side of the face. He cried out and stumbled back into his dog, who snarled and turned to face me. Except, that’s what Dog was waiting for. He was on Bear’s back in an instant, snapping and snarling as he bit into the thick fur and heavy skin of the larger dog’s neck.
I’d learned that when you faced an opponent that was larger or stronger, you never gave them a chance to counterattack. We never let up, trying to keep Bear from getting a good opportunity to strike. Soon enough, we were a tangle of fists, feet, teeth, snarls, and howls.
I felt claws scratch across my forearm as I delivered a heavy punch to Bear’s flank, staggering him. I rounded to smash my knee into Drum’s gut as he tried to control my other flailing arm, going for some sort of restraint hold on my arm that never came of anything.
Drum vomited up the meal he had been so proud of. His spew of food sailed past my shoulder to land on the dirt. While Drum was doubled over, I jumped onto his dog, tackling his rear legs out from under him.
Dog and I tore at the larger dog. I had a mouth full of fur and blood. I heard howls of pain and snarls like you only heard when dogs were seriously trying to hurt each other. The massive dog yelped and shook us off, trying to get away. Tail between his legs, he rounded on us and backed away, baring his teeth defensively.
I was greeted with a wallop upside the head that sent me staggering. I landed headfirst in the same, feeling grit scrape across my face as the sand entered my eyes, nose, and mouth all at once. Dog howled and attacked someone else. Teeth latched onto my ankle and bit deep.
I clawed the sand from my eyes, wound up, and kicked at the blurry shape with my other foot. I connected with my foot, sensing something give. I’d probably hurt the dog, but I was beyond caring. Spitting sand and blood, I regained my feet and faced off against more of Pack Chahar.
Nose, with his hound, and Mongrel, with his brown mutt, had joined the fight against me. Two more members of Chahar were engaged with what looked to be Legs and Tiny. Blurry as things were, I thought I saw Face standing to the side, apparently trying to stay out of it.
I threw my head back and howled. Dog howled back. I felt a shudder in my arms, and a sharp pain in my fingertips. I glanced down at my fingers, blinking away the sand and dizziness. My fingertips had elongated into sharpened points, human fingernails giving way to canine claws. My mouth, too, ached, and my eyes felt strange.
I did not take the time to revel in the changes. Instead, I shook my head again and took a menacing step toward Nose and Mongrel, whose dogs barked and backed away from me. Gone was the pain in my ankle. Gone was the stinging scrape on my arm. I felt nothing. I felt amazing. I’d never felt so powerful before, and these two were going to feel my wrath. I’d feel my teeth on their throats, my claws in their flesh.
I launched myself into the air, leaping as I’d never been able to before. Had I been in the streets, this sort of jump would have carried me across a wide alley, from one rooftop to another. In the sand, it carried my fist into Nose’s face. It crunched wetly.
My next two steps carried me over to Mongrel. I drove my fist into his chest and then shredded his shirt with my claws. Blood blossomed where my claws crossed. Dog worried at their animals, his ferocity matching my own. It was enough to keep them off my flanks.
Tiny and Legs were holding their own against the long-haired dog from Chahar and his master, as well as the sleek, grey dog that filled out their team. Killer was doing his best to keep Drum’s dog away from me while I finished these two.
Mongrel held up his arms to protect his face, so I clawed the backs of his hands and arms before driving my foot into his middle. He tumbled backward a half-dozen paces, crumpling into the sand. Nose tried to run, but another powerful leap carried me onto his back. I stomped his face into the ground and turned to find Drum.
Drum had finished vomiting and was trying to crawl away. I strode powerfully over to him, hearing voices, but ignoring them. With Dog by my side, I reached down and picked Drum up by the scruff of his neck. Snarling, I regarded his puke-stained face as he babbled and cried into my eyes.
I stared at my reflection in his eyes, seeing yellow. I blinked at that.
My eyes were yellow, and my nose had reshaped into a poor semblance of a dog’s muzzle, betraying sharp teeth beneath my lips, which had split on top, as with a dog’s mouth. I did not recognize myself, but I did not care.
Dog slavered beside me, blood-tinged saliva dripping into the sand. He looked larger and more imposing than I had ever seen. Dog warned Bear not to approach, but the scared beast kept attempting to save his master and get past Killer and his fighting dog.
“Go!” Someone called. I cocked my head to the side, ears twitching.
“Go!” I heard my name once more, but my thoughts were thick.
“Go! That’s enough!” This time I turned my head back toward the north gates. Bull stood there, face a mixture of horror and concern.
“You need to stop this!” It was as close as he would come to pleading.
I was aware of clanking and the raising of the south gate. A troop of auburn-clad guards filed out, led by Green. I threw Drum aside, casting him at the feet of Nokomi’s statue. I kicked him in the ribs and left him in a heap at Nokomi’s feet. Then I walked around the statues to face Green and his guardsmen.
My blood was up. I was not afraid of a man and his six soldiers. My ears pricked at the sounds of crossbows being ratcheted into readiness in the upper gallery, at least a eight of them.
“That will be enough, Go.” Green held out his hand for me to stop, to stop all of this.
“He speaks, finally.” I laughed. “Isn’t this what you wanted?” It was hard to form the words with my mouth. I was not used to talking with such sharp teeth in my mouth and lips formed so strangely.
Green motioned with his hands, and the guards fanned out. A single guard set himself on either side of Green, while a pair slid to both my left and right. The semicircle hedged me in with halberds, sharp spears with glinting axe blades on their lengths.
“You wanted a beast. You treated us like beasts. Now you have one.” I regarded my own hands, disgusted and yet fascinated by what I had become.
“Stop this now and return to yourself.”
“I don’t know how.” I answered. “Maybe I don’t want to.”
That much was true. I’d never felt so powerful. My heart pounded in my chest, and with each hammer of that muscle, I could feel my muscles tense and ready for battle. My senses were stronger than ever before. I could smell the fear on these men. I could smell everything they’d eaten that day. I could smell a wife’s perfume on one of them, a lingering trace on his neck. I could count the pores on Green’s face. I smelled a coming storm in the air, a hint of ozone that spoke of lightning and seasonal rains. I could taste the blood of dog and man on my lips, and I knew the difference.
I felt unstoppable.
“Go!” Bull called once more. “Stop!”
“Yes, listen to your friend. Stop now, and we can get you calmed down and back to yourself. You just need to stop.” Green might have spoken evenly and calmly, but as I tilted my head, I could hear the excitement in his pulse. I could smell the eagerness on his skin. He wanted me to go too far. He wanted to see what I could do.
My thoughts raced. There were so many things I could do. I knew I could get my hands on Green before they put a crossbow bolt in me. I just knew I could clear those steps and snap his neck. They might hit me once or twice, but I also knew I could jump up to the second floor and kill at least half of those men with crossbows before they could reload.
But then what? What would become of me? How would I make it back to Nokomi?
In the space of seconds, I weighed my options. I felt heartbeats coming up beside me. I opened my nostrils… Legs. Killer. Tiny. My pack.
“Go, if you want to do this, we will.” Tiny announced, his pocket-sized pup ready to go to war beside him.
“No, you idiots!” Green hissed. “Stand down! Go back!”
The guards suddenly didn’t look so convinced. Six on one hadn’t seemed so bad. Now it was six on four, with four dogs helping.
Green looked about the say something, when his eyes flashed with rage. More heartbeats were coming up behind me. Face and Red were joining us. Counting dogs, that was twelve of us now, and I was worth nearly as much as all of these men put together.
I smiled at him. “What now, Green?”
Green shook his head and signaled with a hand. I knew that I was his target, so I wanted to move away from my pack. Eight crossbows sang out. I sprang forward and to the side, trying to put my body behind a guard. Bolts whistled past my face and others stabbed into the sand near my feet. Others had better aim. I felt a sting rip through my thigh, I stumbled, but my momentum carried me into the surprised guard. His halberd blade sliced along my ribs, but I drove him to the ground.
Dog harassed the next guard, but was struggling to get past his halberd. Howls and more fighting broke out, but with me down, my fellows were unable or unwilling to push the issue.
I started to pick myself up to move to the next foe, but I felt faint, more than I should have. My vision began to swim even as I listened for the telltale sounds of crossbows being reloaded. I stumbled forward, and, hearing more shouts from my pack, I held up a hand for them to freeze.
I could only remember a few times in my life when I’d ever felt such a sensation before... I’d felt it when I’d been sick as a child and deep in a fever. I’d felt it when I’d arrived here at the Kennel, waking up in a fog. But the first time I really remembered such a sensation was when I’d had my scalp ripped and Nokomi had let her blood mingle with my own.
I don’t know why it was this very moment that I realized how important that moment had been. Nokomi’s blood has mixed with my own. Dog had licked it after, and had in turn licked his own wounds from the desert cat. Our blood had all comingled, the three of us. That’s why we were pack, we three. It was in our blood.
Nokomi. I needed to get back to her. But how? Dying now was not the way.
I staggered away, aware of more shouting and of guards hedging me in with their weapons. They drove me, and I was too delirious to prevent it. Maybe I even let them. The east gate opened behind me. Dog and I were forced into the tunnel that led to the yard.
I vaguely recall being pushed into the yard beyond the short tunnel, beyond the watching eyes of the packs. Then, as I began to collapse, surrounded by guards, I heard the clank and clatter of a cage being opened. Then it all went dark, and I was left dreaming of a smell, the smell of whatever had been on those crossbow bolts and those halberds.
I wished that smell had been Nokomi’s perfume instead.
For the rest of the week, Green shadowed my lessons. What he learned, I could not tell. He seemed most interested in my lessons with Red and Blue. He was only briefly apparent during my lesson with Grey, but he could have been watching longer. I surmised that his interests were more in my martial skills and interactions with other packs, rather than my etiquette.
Green met with each teacher after our lessons for a debriefing. He was even visible once on the walls when we were in the yard, watching the whole lot of us go about our business after eating our morning meals. I doubt he learned much there, as most of us stood around, urinated on bushes, or hunted for stones.
Hunting for the perfect stones had become something of a pastime for many of the boys. At least eight boys now had their own set of four rocks, all marked and decorated for uniqueness. Small games or practice occurred almost nightly now, in preparation for the weekend tournaments. It was certainly taking off.
Twice during the week, Green also toured our north wing. He went room to room, inspecting our living conditions and the ways in which we interacted. He had conversations with two of the boys who were practicing the stone game in an empty room, asking about the rules and the game’s origins. All things seemed to point back to me, but he did not speak to me directly, not even when he found us practicing holds and throws under Bull’s tutelage. He silently watched us practice for the better part of our lesson and then vanished just as silently.
If much seemed to stay the same, in spite of Green’s mysterious presence, other changes were upon us. There was a flurry of activity on the first morning of Panj’s second weekend there. We were released into the gallery for our morning meal, only to find four statues, where before there had only been one. Larger-than-life renditions of the Empress and their two daughters now flanked the Emperor, much like in the portrait we saw each time we went to Blue’s class.
We all stopped and stared, all twenty-some of us. For some of us, like Pack Yek especially, they’d walked into this gallery and looked at one statue for over a year. Then, without warning, there were four. It would take some getting used to.
The Emperor had been rendered as a powerful man with a commanding expression. His hand resting on the hilt of a curved sword belted at his hip. He wore a conical head wrap, much like when I’d met him. They’d done a good job creating his hard expression. He seemed like an imposing man.
The Empress was only up to his shoulder, smaller than him by a head or more. Her hair was swept back into a scarf, and jewels of cut glass had been set into web-like pattern across her hair, so they twinkled even in the morning light. She was pretty, with an open expression to her face and a kindly set to her cheekbones and jawline.
The two daughters were of different sizes, each slightly smaller than their mother. I’d never seen the older sister before, but I assumed it was a faithful recreation, as the Emperor’s and Nokomi’s statues seemed very accurate. The sister had a narrower face than Nokomi, with eyes and a face shape the looked intelligent and thoughtful. She was half a handspan taller than her younger sister, and slimmer of build.
While the other three statues were masterful recreations of their subjects, it was Nokomi’s statue that captured my real attention. It was breathtaking. I felt my forehead burn. Dog emitted a low keening howl beside me, as if he, too, felt the burn in my scalp. I blinked away tears, the fire of my scalp stinging my eyes.
“Nokomi.” I whispered.
There were no explanations to the new additions to our gallery. There was no ceremony to declare their purpose. There were only the four statues and silence. Then there were the guards dumping our food onto the sand, food that no one seemed to have no immediate interest in, which was likely a first.
Dog and I went forward to the statue of our friend, ignoring the other three. Dog sniffed at it, while I placed hands upon it. It was not her, but it was the closest thing we had to her. At some point, I separated from the statue and knelt beside Dog. We waited for the burning in my scalp and our souls to subside.
I was unaware of what others thought of my behavior until I looked up. Everyone was still frozen, watching us. I cast a look around at my fellows. There was no judgement there for the most part, only surprise and confusion. They had no knowledge of my past, none of them except for Bull, and he had a look of concern in his eyes, which kept shifting to the southern side of the gallery. I didn’t need to look over my shoulder to know who was there watching me, studying my reaction.
Shaking my head, I walked away from the statue, forsaking food. Killer grabbed my arm, nodding toward the piles of food that people were now starting toward.
“Eat, if you want. I will have none of it. I will eat like a man, or not at all.”
Killer looked torn between his stomach and his loyalty. He was a creature of habit and routine, as were we all. Legs sighed, and Tiny grumbled, but they followed me back into our wing of the building. Bull and his pack hesitated, many of them already having food in hand. Pack Se followed Panj back into our rooms.
Seeing this, Pack Yek also joined us, leaving only Chahar and Do to fight over the pile of food. Red from Pack Do joined us in our protest, eliciting shouts from Scar, his pack leader. A few moments later, Face also joined us, the boy with the wrinkly dog from Pack Chahar. Drum’s curses and screams made it clear that it was not a move that he approved of.
The members of Pack Yek filed in past our door, each stopping to nod to our group. They were with us, surprisingly. They’d never made any show of solidarity about anything before. They kept to themselves to eat, bathe, and play. They were their own entity, and yet I had their support.
Drum made sure to strut back in after he’d eaten his fill, burping and covered in food stains. “Quite a feast out there today, boys.” He eyed the six of us, Face, Red, and Pack Panj. Packs Yek and Se had gone back to their own rooms.
“If you like being fed like a beast.” Tiny replied snarkily. His little dog snarled at Drum and his oversized dog.
Drum picked at his teeth and laughed. “Don’t think I could eat another bite.”
“Go play in the yard.” Killer said, waving them off.
“Oh, didn’t you know? They didn’t open the yard today. Thanks for that!” Drum shouted.
We all looked at each other in alarm. That had never happened before. No matter how much we ate or how much we’d left before, not that it had ever been much left behind, they had always opened the east gate for us to run in the yard. It was part of the deal, weekend or not.
“I guess that’s what happens when half of you lose your minds, follow this new guy, and scorn our masters’ good will.” Drum shook his head at the lot of us. “Maybe you’ll all be a little smarter tomorrow and let this fool go hungry by himself.”
Killer stood up, ready to fight. Tiny and Legs were up beside him in an instant. I pulled them back down. “It’s not worth it. Let him do it. We’ll see how well that goes.”
Drum laughed again and strolled off, leaning backward to let his full belly show all the more. He let his eyes rest for a long moment on Face, the traitor of his group, and then left. The rest of Chahar followed their leader back to their room.
“You can stay with us, if you want.” I offered. There was the unspoken offer of membership, something that would come with time, if he wanted it.
Face looked me in the eyes and shook his head. “I don’t know. I don’t like my pack, but it is my pack. It’s been my home for months. We don’t change packs.”
“We don’t skip meals and play games together, either.”
“There is that. Still, I should go deal with them. It won’t be easy.”
“They don’t deserve your loyalty.” Killer commented.
“Maybe not, but I will offer it once more. If they turn me aside, I will be back. It’s not like I’ll have any other options.” He grinned, but it was the expression of a boy that expected trouble and likely pain for his defiance.
“Good luck.” We all wished him. He nodded and departed.
Bull walked into our room next, wearing a serious look. He crossed his arms and regarded me like a disappointed parent might a disobedient child. “You’ve made your next move.”
“It was too early.”
“Was it? Is it ever too early to demand to be treated like a person?”
“You know that’s not what I mean.”
“Tell me, if were soldiers in the Emperor’s army, would they feed us scraps thrown in the dirt?”
Bull smiled derisively. “Go, it’s not that easy. We are a special case. There is no army like us. Never has a group of Old Blood been incorporated in the forces of the New Blood. We are remnants of an old people. Their ways are not ours, and now they seek to use our gifts to their advantage.”
“I know nothing of that. I just want to be fed food that does not feel and look like garbage thrown aside for a creature. I am a man. I wish to eat like one.”
Just then, someone came running in, shouting, “Chahar ruined all the leftover food! They smashed it into the dirt and covered it in filth!”
Apparently, someone had been hungry enough to check to see what had become of the leftovers. Chahar wasn’t going to let anyone change their minds. If we’d skipped out on food when it was first offered, we didn’t deserve any of it. Chahar had ruined any chance to go back for it later. There would be no eating until the baskets arrived this evening. More shouting erupted in the hallways because of this, arguing broke out, and fighting up and down the halls.
I didn’t feel like a fight just then. It wouldn’t amount to much more than the beatings we gave each other in our classes, and the same feuds would just crop up again later.
I walked off. Dog trailed behind me. I walked with a purpose. I don’t know why. I didn’t want to see the ruined and soiled food, but there was nowhere else to go to be alone with my thoughts, so I went to the gallery.
Immediately upon walking out into the gallery, my eyes went to the statues. They dominated the plain room, with nothing but walls, pillars, and sand to look at otherwise, but my eyes went to Nokomi’s statue almost instinctively anyway. What I saw left me dismayed.
Food had been smeared across Nokomi’s face. Tomato or some other red fruit had been smeared across her fine features. Even worse, urine stains streaked down her statue, discoloring it from the knees down in several places. From where I stood, with nostrils flared, I recognized one scent immediately as Drum’s, but apparently several dogs and other boys, likely the whole of Pack Chahar had relieved themselves upon her statue.
The smell of dung wafted my way as well. The food had been gathered into a pile in the sand and feces were piled upon the mound. The whole gallery smelled of waste and disrespect, and my forehead burned horribly.
These acts would not go unpunished.
The new week started much like the last, with a sand-covered breakfast. I ate it without relish, frowning at my fellows as we did so.
“This is not right.” I said, spitting out a mushy part of a zucchini that had been stepped on.
“It’s this or go hungry.” Legs was ignoring the sand and burying his face in a piece of fruit that was nearly unrecognizable.
“Maybe we should go hungry then.” I remarked, tossing the food aside.
Tiny laughed at this idea. “You want to do Red’s class on an empty stomach? Good luck. Chahar will pound you into the ground if you don’t have the energy to fight back.”
Legs nodded emphatically in agreement. He still chewed at what I took to be the white insides of a quince. It wasn’t very appetizing, whatever it was.
Killer looked around at the faces that surrounded him, torn between his belly and his loyalty to me. In the end, his stomach won out. “We need the energy. Eat, Go, and we can try to fix this later.”
Sighing, I knew he was right. I picked up a chunk of meat and took a bite, swallowing grit with it. “It can’t come soon enough.”
Truthfully, I’d eaten dirty castoffs and moldy food much of my life. It wasn’t that I couldn’t eat it. It was how it was presented to us. If I only managed to scavenge a moldy bread crust one day, that was my fault. If I found better, of course I’d eat it. Sometimes, given the choice between rotten food and no food, I’d chosen no food. Here, we were just handed food, but they still couldn’t feed it to us in a way that treated us like people. They insisted on this humiliating fashion of feeding us one meal of a day just to remind us that we were only as good as beasts – until they needed us to be something more than that.
Killer met my gaze. “If we get others to join us, maybe they will change things. If it’s only the four of us, it will change nothing.”
I smiled and nodded. We’d made some headway with the game yesterday, joining nearly three packs for a single meal. If we could all come together, or at least most of us, we might be able to convince them to stop feeding us like animals.
Dog was watching something. I followed his gaze to a man in green watching us from the decorated box seats on the south balcony. Leaning over the rail, his piercing eyes were upon me. He made no attempt to disguise the fact that he was watching me.
I nudged Legs and Tiny, nodding toward the man in green. Killer turned as well, looking at the man. He met our eyes without hesitation. From his features, he could easily have been Blue, Red, or Grey, except that he wore a green uniform.
“Who is he?” Tiny wondered aloud.
“I don’t know.” I frowned. “I’m sure we will learn soon enough.”
I glanced around the gallery, but no one else seemed to have noticed him, except for Pack Yek. All eight of them had eyes on Green, until he turned and walked away. Then, they turned as one to look at me. I squirmed under the collective weight of their gazes, but continued to stare back at them. They broke first, turning in toward each other to whisper.
When we went outside into the yard, I struck out across the sand and scrub grass and headed immediately toward Bull and pack Se. This was something of a breach of decorum. Normally, packs would melt away, and you could meet a straggler out away from the pack, but you would not approach a whole pack to speak. To do so was something of a challenge.
Pack Se, normally so calm, bristled at me. Bull held up a hand to still the pack. His bulldog eyed me warily. “Go? What is it?”
“Green. Did you see him?”
Bull’s head cocked to the side at me, a canine look of confusion. It would have been comical had his face not been so serious. “Green? He’s here?”
“He was in the gallery watching me.”
Bull stepped away from his pack and sent a searching look out at the walls. The auburn guards paced at even intervals, as always. Everything about this morning was normal, except for the appearance of Green back in the gallery.
“Green is dangerous.” Bull whispered to me.
“Who is he?”
“He’s another instructor. I’ve only seen him once or twice before. He reports directly to Yellow-Eyes.”
“Who is Yellow-Eyes?”
Bull smiled at me as if I were being stupid. “The bearded man with the big dog? The one who addressed your new pack on your first day here?”
“Oh. Kalb. You call him Yellow-Eyes…”
“Kalb?” Bull looked astonished. “Is that his name?”
“That’s what Nokomi, the Emperor’s daughter called him. I suppose that is his name.”
Bull couldn’t have looked more surprised had I reached out and smacked him across the face. “Nokomi? The Emperor’s Daughter? Go, how exactly did you get here?”
“I was caught in the Bazaar with Nokomi. She is my friend. I’ve known her since we were both very small children. We met one day in the streets. Dog and I killed a desert cat to protect her.”
“So you know the Emperor’s daughter…”
“I met the Emperor that day, also. He showed up with Kalb, your Yellow-Eyes. They thought she needed to be protected from me, I think. I ran from them then, but he caught me just a few days ago, just when I’d finally met her again.”
Bull nodded slowly, taking in the details of my story. He thought before speaking, looking once more at the guards. He whispered to me then, conspiratorially, “If what you say is true, then you are to be watched. It explains why Green is watching you. None of us here was personally captured and recruited by Yellow-Eyes. None of us have met the Emperor or his daughter, either.”
“Does that matter?”
“Because, Yellow-Eyes used to tell us a story of a boy that saved the Emperor’s daughter. That boy… No. If what you say is truth, then you are the cause of this whole place, of us being brought here.”
I stared at Bull, a mixture of horror and surprise on my face. I was the reason this place existed? I was why all of these boys had been brought here and treated this way?
“You see, if one of our kind could protect his daughter so well, what would an army of boys like us be able to do for the Emperor?” There was a flinty hardness to Bull’s eyes. He did not blame me for what had brought him here, but I could tell that he was not entirely fine with my involvement either.
“What does Green coming here have to do with me?”
“I think your little game roused them. Becoming one pack… is this what they want, or does it scare them?”
“I must be true to myself, Bull.” I replied, causing Dog to yip in agreement.
“True, but we must all be true to ourselves. I think that your past is a story that many here would not be ready for. If you shared it freely, some would fear you, some would hate you, and some would follow you.”
“And which are you?”
Bull shook his head. “I can’t say. I don’t really know. Not yet, anyway.”
“What should I do?”
“As you said, you must be true to yourself. Just know that Green might take your actions, however small, to have deeper meanings. Anything and everything you do could be taken back to Yellow-Eyes.”
“Kalb.” I said the name aloud. “Always things revolve around him.”
Bull nodded. We waited in silence, thinking. Dog sniffed at Bull’s dog. Then the two sat side by side, just like how Bull and I were standing. We stood there, watching the others, realizing at length that many of the others were searching for rocks to play the game with. That made me smile.
“Go?” Bull asked after a lengthy silence, glancing sideways at me, almost hesitantly.
“What was the Emperor’s daughter like?”
I smiled. “Like a laughing sunrise, and she smelled like the handkerchief in the maze. She was my first human friend.”
Bull’s nostrils flared and his eyes narrowed. He shifted his stance nervously. “This is a dangerous game they play with us. You are more involved than you know.”
I could say nothing to that. I had no answers to that.
Later, when we went back inside, I went to Red’s lesson with Bull’s words echoing in my head. Once again, we were paired against Pack Chahar. This time, we fought in pairs, working with each other against two opponents. Killer and I were matched against Drum and the boy with the hound, named Nose.
Unlike the previous week, Drum was a bit reserved when put to fighting me. He flinched away, as if truly scared of me. I used it to my advantage, and we defeated him and his partner again and again. Legs and Tiny didn’t fare quite so well against their two opponents, although Bull’s extra training clearly seemed to have had some impact, because they won at least one match. They had tenacity, if nothing else.
Partway through our lesson, I heard the door open, and I saw Green walk in. He waved us on, signaling us to continue. He said nothing, but he watched, pacing back and forth. However, even when he was at other circles, supposedly watching what they were doing, his eyes always seemed to seek me out. I made a point of ignoring him, concentrating on my opponents instead.
It was a relief when the lesson ended, and we were allowed to go to our rooms and bathe. As we left, I cast a glance over my shoulder, catching Red and Green conversing. They both looked up and stared at me at the same moment. I grinned. I’m not sure why. It was one of those guilty grins, like a boy who has been caught stealing sweets.
They did not smile back.
On our second day off, we were let out into the yard after our first meal, as with every other day. There did seem to be a smaller guard contingent out on the walls, but otherwise, it seemed like a normal day.
Yet, unlike a normal day, I had a purpose as I walked the yard. Dog and I set ourselves to scouting out rocks. We were looking for specific shapes and sizes of rocks. We wanted the roundest rocks we could find, and those we found, we pocketed. Dog and I nosed around the edges of the walls and along the sandier areas of the yard where rocks seemed more likely to be exposed to discovery.
Tiny was very interested in what we were doing and came over to check up on us. “What are you doing?”
“Looking for something. Rocks. It’s for a game we used to play in the alleys.” Truth be told, it was a game I’d watched other boys play in the alleys. I’d never played it myself. I’d never had friends to play with.
Tiny took this in stride. Looking for rocks wasn’t the strangest thing I could have asked for, after all. “What kind of rocks do you want?”
“Flat and round, or round-round?”
I stared at him for a moment, and then I showed him the marble-like, spherical stones I’d found already. He looked at them thoughtfully, took one from my hand, and showed it to L.D. Then he gave me back my rock and took off to find more of their own.
Perhaps it was their proximity to the ground, but they managed to find six more rocks that were passable and two that weren’t. Dog and I only found four good ones total. Still, ten rocks between the two of us were enough for a game. I also snagged a chalky rock that would be good for marking walls.
Later, when we were back inside, I washed off the rocks, finding that one of them was a hard clod of clay instead. Still, we were left with nine rocks. That’d have to do.
There was a lot of interest in what I was up to. Even washing the rocks gathered a small crowd. Bull had seen what I was about, although he probably hadn’t understood it, so he showed up and crossed his arms, watching as I retreated into one of the spare rooms with my washed rocks and began marking up the walls.
Honestly, I couldn’t remember all of the rules, and much of what I’d seen had been months ago, before I could understand most of the conversations that had gone on during the game. What I did remember was a couple variations, one played toward a corner or a crack where a wall met the floor. The other was played within a circle. I’d always found the click and clack of rocks knocking into each other and the walls more satisfying, so I set that one up first. There would be time to try the other variation later, if things went well.
I scratched a tan line across the floor about a handspan away from the wall, paralleling the wall as I went. Then I drew a second line parallel to the wall, this one about two paces away from the first.
“You play like this…” I began to explain to the crowd, which now included most of Pack Se, Red from Pack Do, and the boy with the wrinkly dog from Pack Chahar. Apparently, someone messing around in an empty room was much more interesting than lounging about and waiting for the evening meal.
I placed all of the rocks in a pile. I sorted them out into two piles of four, keeping the last rock in my hand. I marked the last rock with my scratching rock, making an X across it in three places, enough that at least part of one X would be noticeable regardless of how it landed.
Then, I knelt behind the second line, the one farther from the wall, and I tossed my marked rock forward, trying to get it as close to the crack between the wall and the floor as possible. It was overthrown, so it clattered against the wall and rebounded nearly back to the closer line I’d drawn.
“You have four throws. You have to get as many of them as possible past the marked stone. Your opponent will attempt to do the same.”
“That seems simple enough.” Tiny declared, seeming a bit disappointed by the simplicity.
“Try it, then.” I offered him four rocks.
He eyed me suspiciously. L.D. sniffed the rocks with some familiarity. He recognized them, even if they’d been washed since he’d helped collect them. He almost looked tempted to urinate on them, but Tiny shoed him aside, earning a snarl. Tiny barked at his dog and the feisty little beast sat down beside him, looking temporarily subdued.
Tiny knelt beside me behind the line and tossed a rock. It clattered forward, stopping short of the line. He frowned. “It didn’t go past the line.”
“So that rock is worthless now, unless you can knock it forward with another, or knock the marked stone back behind it somehow.” I tossed my own rock. It landed past the line, but not in front of the marked rock. “That’s better, but not good enough. Your turn.”
“How do you know who wins?”
“The best rock, the one closest to the wall is worth two. All others past the marked stone are worth one, unless your enemy has any rocks closer to the wall than them.” I decided that last part on a whim. I wasn’t sure if it was correct or not. “Whoever has the most points win.”
“So seven points is a perfect score.” Bull suggested, eyeing the game shrewdly. “Two for the best rock, plus one each for the other three rocks, supposing they are all closer to the wall than any of your enemy’s rocks.”
Bull was clearly better at the scoring and points of the game than I. Perhaps he’d even come up with some other rules, given time. We played the rest of our throws.
Tiny’s second toss was the best throw yet, but I topped it with my second throw, if only because it struck his throw and sent it skittering off the wall and rolling backward past the line. I now had two points to his zero. He glared at me, his momentary celebration cut short. I grinned. Dog did as well, his head swiveling toward Tiny.
Tiny’s third throw was past the marked rock, but not better than my second throw. With my third throw, I rolled one almost to where my second throw had been, but just behind Tiny’s third throw. So far, it was just that one good throw he had to beat to win.
With his last throw, he ricocheted off the wall and nearly struck my good throw. It narrowly missed. I was left with the winning throw and no need to cast my last stone. I did anyway, casting far enough away from my winning throw that there was no chance of sabotaging my win. It was a good toss, nearly as good as the winning through, which earned me another point. I won with three points.
“Again.” Tiny insisted.
“Hey, I want a turn.” Legs argued, hovering over us.
“I call next!” Bull announced.
I held up my hand with the marking rock in it. “Who can keep score? I don’t know my numbers well enough.”
Bull snagged it from my hand, marked something on the wall that must have been my name and put three small marks beneath it. He quickly marked off some more names. Taking the lead, he called off two more names.
“Everyone plays once, and then the best four play each other.” He suggested, but it was more like taking over. He’d taken my game and run with it, and I was happy with that. I was content to sit back and let him organize.
Before we’d all played once, Bull pulled another member of his pack play to even us out at eight people. It was all four of us from Panj, plus four others. I made it out of the second round of playing, only to be defeated by Bull, who had a very careful shot.
By the time Red won, defeating Bull in the final match with a score of only two, we’d gathered quite a crowd. Blankets were brought in so people could sit or kneel in comfort. Others joined in the next round of play. I didn’t do quite as well, but Tiny made it out of the first couple rounds. The room slowly filled up and then overflowed, with some of us even sitting in the halls. It was standing room only inside the room, with cheers erupting every few seconds as the gameplay proceeded.
When baskets arrived for our evening meal, the guards didn’t know what to do or where to put them. It was almost as if some of us didn’t care so much about food with such a diversion around. The baskets were simply placed in our rooms, and the guards retreated in confusion. Rather than segregating for the meals, nearly three full packs ate together, laughing and enjoying the company of our peers. Pack Yek and half of packs Chahar and Do ate in their rooms, but we had all of Panj, Se, and the remaining halves of Chahar and Do with us.
More than once, looks swiveled my way, but they were looks of gratitude, appreciation, and even respect. I nodded back to them, but otherwise kept to myself.
“I see what you did here.” Bull said at length, seated beside me as we ate.
“It’s just rocks.” I offered, smiling.
“It is more than that, and you know it. Some of us have been here a year or more, and nothing like this has ever happened before.”
I shrugged, saying nothing. Just because we were in cages didn’t mean we had to act like it. We could make the best of our time.
“I just wonder what you’ll try next. This is good. It might be a permanent change. Then again, it might not.”
I just sat in silence, chewing my bread. I smiled down at his bulldog, who was eyeing me with that complacent, calm stare of his. Dog perked his ears up at me, almost like he knew what I was thinking.
Around us, I heard another round of the game had started. I sat this one out.
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.
Blue’s class had been followed with a quiet lesson, during which he’d broken down some things he’d noticed about our time in the maze. He called it a debriefing, a time to relate to what we’d experienced and learn from it. The whole time he spoke, he and other classmates kept casting glances my way, none more than Drum. I purposely ignored them, staring straight forward, dedicated to being an attentive student. The truth was, I heard only about half of what he said, and I understood about a fourth of it.
Blue outlined some tactical advice to be attempted on future assignments. It seemed as if we’d be tested differently each time we saw him. I wondered how many more of my tests would be tricks like this one, meant to make me feel as if I were to be torn once more from Nokomi’s side. I felt Kalb’s influence there. A pang of separation hit me once more, and Dog licked my hand, setting his head on my lap. I focused on him, rather than what I felt. An unknown amount of time later, we were dismissed.
That night, a basket was delivered once more, this time with a blue cloth wrapping up the food. Our treat at the bottom this time was slivers of candied ginger. The sugar on the outside of the ginger offset some of the cool burning of the ginger. The dogs wanted nothing to do with it, but the four of us boys all enjoyed it, if only because it was something strange and new.
The interesting thing was that the candied ginger had been wrapped in the handkerchief I’d fought to retrieve earlier. It still smelled of the perfume, although that scent was now mingled with the odors of food from the basket. Beneath the smells of grilled vegetables and roasted lamb coated in a potent garlic and herb oil, I could smell the perfume.
I tucked the handkerchief under my blankets, and none of the pack questioned the act. They all looked at me with understanding, although they understood nothing. They just knew something had set me off, and I’d turned into an animal… or Dog and I had done so together. No one spoke of it, but whatever had happened had caused them to look at me differently, with more respect, like the sort of respect you showed a dangerous animal when you observed it from a close proximity.
We slept instead of speaking of it.
The next morning, it became clear that we’d fallen into the Kennel’s routine quite easily, perhaps because there was no other choice. The routine was: wake, fight for the early meal, stretch our legs in the yard, go to class, clean up, eat dinner, and then sleep. The only things that changed were the specific classes we went to, the pairings of packs at certain classes, and the types of food we received.
After our morning run in the yard, where Dog and I stayed apart once more, ignoring the looks and whispers from some of the other packs, we were summoned inside once more. This time, Grey held up Panj’s symbol. Red and Blue took the other packs. We would go to Grey alone. That was something of a relief, a reprieve from being forced into accompanying Chahar for a third day in a row.
Grey led us down the long hallway of the west wing, up past the two large rooms where Red and Blue were instructing their classes in martial matters. Grey had a set of small rooms at the north end of the wing, each of which he took us through.
Prior to opening the first door, Grey smiled happily at the four of us. “This, is where you will learn to look after yourselves. You are all very shabby-looking, fresh off the streets, and that is not a fitting look for servants of the Emperor. In fact, I won’t even have you bow to his portrait until you are all cleaned up.”
The first room Grey took us into was a room filled with steaming baths. There were attendants wearing only simple cloths wrapped around their midsections, one for each of us. Each attendant scrubbed both boy and dog they were assigned to, working us over with all the delicateness a butcher might show a piece of meat. Clearly we were filthy beasts that needed to be scrubbed clean, even if that took several layers of skin with it. They wielded brushes, cloths, and scented oils like soldiers might wield weapons.
Their jobs done, the attendants drained the muddy bathtubs, while we were wrapped in soft towels and set in front of looking glasses. There, we were taught to look after every aspect of our appearances, from teeth, to skin, to hair.
We were moved to a new room next, each of us smelling fresh and looking cleaner than any of us had likely been since the days we’d come into the world. Again, prior to admittance to this room, Grey had a speech prepared for us.
“Your dogs are also servants of the Emperor, and they must also be cared for as such. They should always be presentable and proper.”
The second room had more attendants, but these ones seemed to be knowledgeable in the care of animals. They took each of us aside in pairs and showed us proper hygiene for dogs. They worried and frowned at Dog’s scratches and scars, the dirty interiors of his ears, and the state of his gum lines. I learned a dozen new things that I’d never had to care about before, things I couldn’t have considered while living in a den in the alleyways.
Dog suffered most of this indignities with fair grace, mostly because I was calm beside him. Had I been agitated, I doubt he would have let the man poke, prod, and examine him. He marveled over Dog, as he’d not seen another of his kind in the close company of a person before. We were something of an oddity even to animal doctors.
Tiny’s little beast gave his attendant the most trouble, drawing blood when the man tried to check his teeth. Apparently, L.D. mistook the man’s fingers for sausages. It was not a mistake he’d make twice.
Eventually, all of our beasts were combed and groomed. Toenails had been filed and clipped, ears were cleaned, scrapes and scratches were treated with balm, and we were all declared fit to enter the third room.
“Now you all look like proper servants of the Emperor. These final rooms,” he indicated three more rooms down his wing, “are where we learn to act like proper young men and agents of the Emperor.”
“In one of these rooms, you will learn how to dress. There are dozens of courtly functions each year, and each one has a very specific code of dress. In the next room, you will learn how to eat like a man, not a beast. It is not enough to look and smell the part. You must also be able to eat and behave like a man.” Grey smiled with a polite wince, as if we were all abominable and ill-mannered creatures. We probably were.
“Finally, you will learn etiquette and dance. To truly be a man of the court, you must be able to speak, dance, and move like a courtier. If you stalk about as a brute, it will be all too clear that you are a soldier. To serve the Emperor, you must be able to blend in with the gentlest of folk. You must be a wolf in a man’s guise, ever careful to keep to your disguise.”
The four of us looked at each other. This was a lot to take in all at once.
“I appreciate that you are overwhelmed. You’ve been raised like wild animals, and you’ve learned to act like beasts for your whole lives. Few understood your connections to your dogs, and fewer still knew how to train you to be the best of both worlds. Red and Blue might teach you to be the best warriors possible, but I will teach you all to be the best men possible.”
“Shall we begin?” He asked eagerly. He was clearly excited by the prospects of molding a new group of young men into proper human-like servants of the Emperor.
It wasn’t exactly an excited bunch of boys answering, but we all said yes. In the end, getting a fresh set of clean clothes was not such a bad thing. But who knew how difficult it could be to put on clothes, to keep them clean, and to not slop food all over oneself while eating?
I had a feeling that Grey’s lessons, while not physically challenging, would be very challenging to us mentally. Patience and manners were not things that came easily to any of us.
Our next breakfast was much the same as the day before, a fight with the others for our meal. This time, we knew what to expect, and we came out a little bit better off than we had our first time around. Dog and I also helped gather food, mostly by running interference for Tiny and his little partner. Killer, as the day before, guarded our food.
Legs struggled after his initial plunder, because speed only works for the first strike. After that, he lacked the initiative and aggressive nature it would have taken to push through to get more. He apologized, but it wasn’t necessary, as he still managed to get the nicest piece of meat in our haul. Additionally, Tiny had been far more effective, mostly because Drum and Bear were stalking Dog and I, leaving some of Chahar’s potential haul vulnerable.
We ate in silence, not relishing the food, but certainly not wasting it. After what we’d eaten the night before, we certainly weren’t going to attack sandy piles of food with a whole lot of gusto. No, I ate somewhat more carefully, dusting off the food and eating around smashed spots. Looking around, I saw the others were doing the same. I suppose we’d become something of food snobs after a single basket of nice food.
“This is a strange place.” I whispered conspiratorially to my pack. They all looked up to listen, waiting for me to go on. “One moment, they encourage us to act like animals. The next, we’re treated like people.”
“Which one are we supposed to be?” Tiny wondered aloud, touching on something we all felt.
“Like both.” Killer suggested. “The Emperor will have need for men who can be both.” Red had said as much, and Killer’s words made it seem all that much truer.
We were let out through the east gate to wander the yards and stretch our legs. I mulled over what we’d experienced and couldn’t find any flaw to his thinking. It was a strange path we walked, straddling the line between beast and man, the best of both words wrapped in a dangerous package.
Dog and I ran a bit, alternating it with walking. We kept to ourselves, stretching our legs and letting our food digest. I wanted my food to be settled before our next class. It would be either Blue or Grey today, and Blue seemed more likely, as we would have it more often than Grey.
Dog and I had always run a lot in the alleys. Even though we’d only been here for two days, we both missed it. You did that sort of a thing, dodging through narrow passages and avoiding detection or capture. Despite surviving by taking things from other people, I’d never thought of myself as a thief. We’d just been hungry. Dog and I had needed something that other people had plenty of. Even the best thieves couldn’t always get away clean. When we grabbed something from a market stall or an open window, we were seen sometimes, and we’d have to run away. Hearts hammering in our chests, it was almost like a game, one where getting caught might result in losing a hand or getting thrown into jail. Running in the yard gave us a little of that sense of freedom, even if it was quite limited, and if it lacked the thrill of the escape.
Dog and I had lived for years by ourselves. We’d always been able to come and go as we pleased. There had been no place we couldn’t go if we put our minds to it. Now, we came and went as they told us, on a schedule set by men we didn’t know.
When we were summoned back inside by the bells, we lined up once more in front of our instructors. This time, we were called forward to stand beside Blue, who held up the symbol for our pack. Once more, we were paired up with Chahar. That didn’t bode well. Surely they’d want revenge for yesterday. Although, truth be told, other than the initial bout between Drum and I, it had mostly gone their way. We’d all tried to give as well as we’d been given, but I was sure we had a larger share of bruises and scrapes than they did. Chahar had more training than, and it showed. We certainly had a lot of catching up to do.
Packs Do and Yek were lined up with Red today, and Pack Se was lined up with Grey. The members of Pack Se seemed pleased by this. Perhaps we’d have something to look forward to with Grey’s lessons? I couldn’t recall how Pack Yek had looked after our lessons yesterday, having been too exhausted to care, so I didn’t remember if they’d returned to their room as exhausted as we had been. That would have to wait and see. Perhaps tomorrow, we’d learn.
Blue led us into the same hallway as yesterday, only we were the next large room over. I expected to find another room with weapons on one side and fighting circles on the floor, but was confronted with an entirely different room. It was not at all what I expected, but it seemed as if it might just be a good thing.
We were staring at a maze of passages, all made from movable walls too tall to see over. Because many of them had been closed off overhead as well, the passages between them were often dark, and we could not see past the first bend down any of the three routes offered.
“As servants of your Emperor, you will be asked to perform many tasks. Some will be difficult. Some will be routine. Today’s task is to search for a handkerchief.”
“A handkerchief?” Drum scoffed.
Blue’s sharp gaze swiveled his way, and he quickly looked at his feet. “It is not your place to question what is asked of you. If the Emperor gives you a seemingly strange order, it is still to be followed, as you may not understand the importance of what is being asked of you. After all, you are his dogs, and he is your master.”
“What does the handkerchief look like?” Tiny, standing beside me, asked.
Blue’s face shifted into a mysterious smile. “That, is a good question.” Even if it had been a good question, it was a question he refused to answer.
He chose three of us seemingly at random, making each student first bark and bow to the portrait of the Emperor that hung over the doorway. Only, this portrait also included other faces. The Emperor was at the front and center of the portrait, dominating the frame. A dark-haired and beautiful woman, likely his mate, stood behind and to the left of him, and two younger girls filled the portrait’s right side. One of those girls I recognized immediately as Nokomi, while the other was similar and yet different, likely an older sister.
“As the Emperor wills.” Blue announced, sending Legs and two members of Pack Chahar into the maze, one at each entry point. Legs cast us a forlorn look, and then vanished into the wooden passageways as he’d been directed.
The rest of us waited, standing there and listening to the noises of dogs and boys as they progressed through the maze. This room was somewhat wider than the one we’d trained in the previous day, although the ceiling was of the same height and it appeared to be about the same depth.
Once or twice, we heard baying, as one of the hounds from Pack Chahar seemed to have scented something. Occasionally, we’d hear scratching or some sort of scuffling about. Then we heard a yelp, and some grunts of pain and struggle.
“What’s in there?” I asked our instructor.
He smiled and shrugged. “It will be different for each group. Life is an ever-changing series of challenges.”
We waited, watching and listening. After an unknown amount of time, a time that seemed close to an eternity, a red flag on a long pole waved from the back end of the room. This seemed like the signal for the next batch of us to enter the maze, but Blue held us back with outstretched hands. Anxious to see who was next, we waited for him to make his choices.
Instead, we heard clanking, grinding, and shifting inside the maze. Once or twice we saw flashes of auburn. Were there guards inside the maze? What purpose did they have? Would we have to fight them? Were they moving the obstacles? I’d have to wait to see. I could do nothing else.
A green flag waved from the back of the room, and Blue finally chose three more of us, again seemingly at random. Tiny was chosen, along with a long-haired dog from Chahar and a small, brown mongrel from Chahar.
This round went much like the last, except we heard snarling and L.D.’s excited yips at one point. After several minutes, the red flag waved again. Once more, the maze shifted around. This time, a few of the closer walls moved. I could see the tops of the obstacles being readjusted.
Killer and I were all that was left of Panj. From Chahar, there were also two members left: Drum and another boy with a shaved head and a wrinkly, short-haired dog that seemed little more than a pup. Both the wrinkly dog and the boy had a kindly look about them.
When the green flag flew, I fully expected Killer to be sent in with the boy, and then Drum and I would get paired up once again. Instead, Blue indicated that I was to be sent in alone.
I sent a questioning look at Blue, but his expression was unreadable. He said nothing, except, “You’d better go quickly.”
Killer gave me a reassuring nod, and I did not wait any longer. I had three choices of paths, so I took the one that looked, at least from the start, to be the least straight-forward route. Sometimes, I’d learned, going the hardest-looking route was actually the easiest. I hoped it was true this time, too.
Dog and I sprang forward, darting into the course. We opened our noses as we ran, taking in the scents and odors. We smelled wood and the chemicals that had been used to treat the panels that boxed us in. The scents of the dogs and boys that had passed this way before also filled our nostrils. Still, there was a hint of something very faint in the air, something familiar.
The passage ahead narrowed, closed off from the ceiling and the floor. Only a small crawlspace existed. Dog and I negotiated that easily enough, having been squeezing through small spaces for years. A large animal like Drum’s dog wouldn’t fit through.
The passage forked. We went straight instead of heading in the direction I knew the flags were. The far end of the room was where the flags were being waved, but I didn’t want to get out of the maze. No, I needed to find something, so Dog and I let our noses lead the way.
Up ahead I heard the whispers of feet on packed clay. Dog looked at me and I looked back. We both smelled a trap. Grinning at each other, we tiptoed forward warily, only to find the walls starting to collapse around us. Dropping low, we crawled as the obstacles crumbled above us, leaving us barely enough room to move beneath them.
Clear of the collapsing walls, we continued after the scent, which grew stronger as we moved deeper into the maze. Dog’s led the way, so it was his paw that caught on a string that ran across the passage floor; flares burst afire around us, and the flashing brightness made our pupils contract. I shielded my eyes and untangled Dog’s paw, pushing forward once more.
From the entry, I heard movement. A deep growl filled the room, and a whoop of glee I knew came from Drum. I’d known him all of two days, and I recognized his voice easily. What was this? In other places, I also heard movement.
Now, Blue’s words made sense. Dog and I were being chased. Not only did we have to find the handkerchief, but we also had to do so before we were caught by the last three participants. Blue’s words echoed in my ears: “Life is an ever-changing series of challenges.”
Well, Dog and I weren’t going to let those challenges get the better of us. We pushed forward into a series of darker passages, covered overhead with musty-smelling, heavy fabric to cut the light down to almost nothing, all the while messing with our senses of smell. Dog and I were no strangers to mildew and rot. Like a sweet undertone, I could still sense the scent we’d been hunting.
The bright flares from before made it hard to see. Our eyes had not adjusted back to the darkness, but our ears were still sharp, and we heard someone rapidly approaching, although the echoes made it hard to tell from where they were coming. Unexpectedly, the young boy and his wrinkly dog burst out from an unseen side passage and came upon us. Much like Red’s class from the day before, we were forced into grappling combat. I was larger than him, and probably stronger, but he’d gotten the jump on me. He had me pinned against the wall, while his dog tried to subdue my Dog.
As we fought, breathing heavily and shoving each other back and forth into the walls, I heard Drum and Bear cursing back the way we’d come from. Had he gotten stuck in the narrow passage? Killer would be closing in, too, and that was one fight I dared not participate in. I knew I’d lose.
I stuck my leg out behind the boy’s foot and gave him a heavy shove. He stumbled backward into the wall and ended up in a pile on top of his own dog. The boy groaned as his head bounced off the wall. Dog snarled in their faces and we bolted further down the passage. Time was running out.
Abandoning caution, we threw ourselves headlong down the passages, darting right, going straight at a fork, and vaulting over a series of uneven crates that shifted as we climbed over them. Up ahead, I saw auburn. Dog yipped excitedly. The smell was stronger than ever. It was floral, delicate, and intensely familiar.
Three guards stood around someone on the floor, someone kneeling. My heart thundered wildly, my eyes opening to their fullest. The smell, the dark hair, and the white dress. Could it be?
The guards rounded on us. They stood in a four-way intersection, facing outward in a triangle formation, surrounding the girl that was kneeling between them. Dog’s round ears perked as the girl turned our way. We saw a flutter of a colored handkerchief in her hand, but we could not see her face.
“Nokomi!” I shouted, darting in, Dog beside me.
Just days ago, we’d lived through this. We’d been separated from Nokomi by guards. Kalb had separated us, and now we’d get her back. This time, we’d not be kept apart. The guards wore padded armor and warded us off with blunted spears and wooden swords, but they might as well have been fully armored and using metal weapons for all we cared.
We fell upon the guards with a fury I’d never felt before. We’d always fought to survive before, never to protect, never to rescue a friend. It was an alien feeling, and yet a good one.
Dog was not much heavier than myself, but he was a jumper. He threw himself at the right guard’s face. Instinct dictated that the man would cover up to protect his face and throat. That gave me an opening. The middle guard, who’d thought I was going to attack him, found himself without a target. Instead, I went after the right guard as well, knocking his legs out from underneath him.
Snarling, I stomped heavily on the man’s chest and latched myself on the next man’s legs, biting and snarling as Dog backed me up. I felt a blow on my shoulders, but shook it off, biting harder as the guardsman screamed and struck at my head and tried to shake me off.
With a shove, I threw the man into the walls. The temporary structure collapsed, leaving him in a pile, covered by wooden planks. A scream filled my ears.
Dog and I threw ourselves at the last guard. He deflected my attack with his staff, shouldering me into a wall. When he brought his staff back around too slowly, Dog latched himself on the man’s arm and took him to the ground. I recovered quickly, shaking off my daze, and pounced on the man, pummeling his face.
More screams, from Nokomi. We turned to her, expecting to find one or more of the guards recovered enough to threaten her once more, something we would not allow. We’d kill them all if need be. Bloodthirst - it was a new feeling for me.
Instead, we found a stranger’s face staring at us with a look of terror upon it. Dark-haired and dressed in white this girl might be, but it was not Nokomi. It was even the same scent upon her handkerchief. Dog trotted over and sniffed at her, but he knew the truth. His head swiveled my way and his ears drooped in a very human look of disappointment.
Drum and Bear stood at the end of one passage, some ten paces away. The look he gave us frightened me. Even Bear, massive though he was, didn’t want anything to do with us right now. I could smell fear on them both.
The guards started to recover, but they were all bleeding and bruised in one way or another, and they made no move to stop us from taking the handkerchief from the girl. She shied away from us, flinching back as we took it. She, too, feared that we might hurt her, as if we would turn upon her and devour her like wild beasts.
We exited the maze then, walking right past Killer and his dog. He and his dog looked at us differently, too, but it was not fear we saw and smelled on them. It was satisfaction. It was loyalty. It was servitude. Had our portrait been upon that wall above the entry, I had no doubt he would have barked and bowed to us at that moment.
The rest of packs Panj and Chahar waited for us outside the maze. A pair of guards in auburn looked at us with pale faces as we exited. I didn’t need a looking glass to know that we had blood on our faces.
They waved the last red flag of the day.
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.
Our instructors waited beside the west gate, the only gate I’d yet to see open. Red, Blue, and Grey each held up signs with characters written on them. I couldn’t read them, so I paid careful attention to where the other packs went, trotting alongside the whole group.
Pack Yek lined up with Grey. He held only one sign. I memorized the character. Packs Do and Se lined up with Blue, who held up two signs. I didn’t know which was which, but I memorized the two. Later, I’d try to figure out how to distinguish between them. Red also held up two signs, one of them was apparently ours, because Legs began lining up in front of it. Chahar was apparently with us as well.
I glanced over at their group, meeting eyes once more with their leader and his giant dog. The smaller boy nodded to me, grinning wickedly. I felt anxious, but not scared. If we were going to have this thing out, at least Red would be there. He wouldn’t let things go too far, would he?
The west gate opened, admitting us. We watched Yek enter first with their instructor, followed by Blue and his two classes, and finally Red, who we followed. Chahar led the way, refusing to give way to our smaller pack. I was fine watching them enter. It gave us more time to observe as we went down the hallway.
Unlike the west gate, which led straight through the thick wall and out into the yard, this hall was longer. It rather quickly ran into a long hallway that ran north-south through the building. Several doors were on the far side of the hallway, one of which being where Blue led his two packs. From the sound of the echoes within that room, it seemed rather large. Grey took his class all the way down the hallway in the direction of the north wing, although they stayed within the rooms of this western wing of the complex.
That left our two packs and Red. We took the large room beside the one that Blue had entered with his packs. Red stood beside the double doors, which he’d opened, and held out a hand to indicate that we were to enter. I was unprepared for what the room held.
Some thirty paces on a side, the far wall had several high windows that admitted light that supplemented the illumination from the skylights above us. The large room was lined with racks of weapons on the right side, as one faced inward from the entrance. An assortment of blunt staves, poles, wooden swords, and chains hung in the nearest part of that wall, while locked cases of swords, knives, spears, and other edged weapons were just beyond them. A third section, toward the far wall, featured various ranged weapons: slings, small crossbows, and bows with a variety of arrows.
Piles of other equipment had been carefully stacked on the opposite wall, to my left. Some of the items had obvious purposes, things like bars, posts, wooden platforms, ropes, scaffolding, and weights. Other things were less obvious in their purpose, and there were closed crates of gear as well. I both wondered and worried about what sorts of things they might contain.
The floor of the room was laid out with five combat circles, all painted white. The central circle was largest, about five long paces across, with the other four arranged around it like corners of a box. The central circle was situated atop a ring of raised earth in the exact middle of the room. It looked to be made of packed reddish clay, built nearly waist high on me. The white ring that had been painted on top of the platform had been marred by footprints, but was still mostly intact.
The other four rings were similar, but not quite as large, and they were not nearly so high, perhaps ankle high at most. Between the five rings, there were places where ropes, rings, and bars were hung from the ceiling. Most of those had been drawn up out of the way for the moment.
Red indicated with two pointed fingers, one from each hand, that we should gather in our packs in front of him. When we gathered in the spots as he’d asked, he began his instruction, starting with a well-rehearsed speech, one he would begin every class with.
“No one wanted you. No one cared for you. You were without purpose, wild beasts. Now, you will live like true dogs, serving the only man who wants your loyalty, the only one who will offer you a place in this life: Emperor.”
He pointed to a painting of the Emperor on the wall above the doors. “Your master!”
Pack Chahar gave a bark and a stiff bow. We did the same after looking at one another. We might not have done it as loudly or with as much practice as them, but we followed their example anyway.
Satisfied with our introduction to his class, Red began pacing back and forth in front of our group. “As your fighting instructor, it is my privilege to instruct you in the ways of combat. You will learn to be deadly with any weapon you are handed, or without one. You were born with natural weapons beyond those of most normal humans. Your hands are your claws, your teeth are your fangs, and your dogs are an extension of your bodies, extra weapons in your arsenal. You must be as deadly as a dozen men, no matter your size. To be any less is to be worthless in our Emperor’s service.”
“Drum. Here. Now.” Red snapped his fingers and asked Chahar’s leader to join him. The boy was quick to join him at his side. “Weapon of choice?” He asked.
“Spear.” Drum answered immediately. He didn’t even need to think about it.
“Why?” Red demanded.
It gives me superior reach. It is deadly from a distance and up close. I can throw it or hold it. Either way, I can kill.”
“You.” Red pointed at me. “Here. Now.”
I joined him on his left side, where Drum stood on his right.
“Same question. Weapon of choice?”
I did not have an immediate answer for him. Instead, I looked to the wall appraisingly before settling on my answer. “My hands.”
Red’s mouth twisted into a smile. “Why?”
“If I drop a knife, I cannot use it. If a club is taken from me, I have nothing. You cannot take my hands from me. I can use them to make anything into a weapon. Or, I can choke, punch, and claw you with them.”
“An interesting answer, boy. Now gather around, boys and dogs. Let us see then, how their answers serve them.”
Red leaped over to the wall to grab a blunted spear. Then, he hurried back to the center of the room, where he waved Drum and me up onto the ring. Before I knew it, I was upon the packed clay, standing directly across from the smaller boy, but he held a spear, and I had nothing but my own two hands. The rest of our two packs had gathered around the base of the circle, looking up at us.
Red cleared his throat and turned slowly, pointing a finger from his left hand as he turned and spoke, “Guard yourselves well, and remember that fights are never even. Your opponents could always be faster, smarter, stronger, bigger, or better equipped and trained than you. It is up to you to exploit their weaknesses and make them into your advantages.”
Red stepped down from the ring and Drum charged immediately. Apparently, there would be no signal to begin, but I had not expected one. Dog barked a warning, but I’d known the attack was coming.
Drum’s two-handed hold on his spear shortened his possible reach, which was good for me, because there was not a lot of space within the circle where I could hide from him. I dodged the initial stab, but he came back with three more, which had me backpedaling and side-stepping along the edge of the circle. My bare feet whispered across the clay, kicking up dust and the talc that white line had been painted with. Drum was quick, I had to give him that. I doubted he’d tire before he hit me, so I knew I had to do something.
The alleys had taught me to survive. Dog and I had always known when to hide, when to run, and when to attack. This was one of those times. I let Drum close on me, waving his spear threateningly. He thought he had me cornered, but that’s just what I wanted him to believe.
He came at me, and I leaned backward, as if I was going to overbalance and fall from the platform. As expected, he sent his spear right at my guts. I snaked my body to the side and grabbed the haft of the spear, tugging it with all of my might. This was like a tug-of-war game I’d played before with Dog, standing on top of a crate in the alleys, but I’d adapted it to this new situation.
My pull against his weight kept me atop the platform while he kept moving forward with his momentum. Drum sailed past me, landing on the ground off of the platform, amidst a crowd that scattered as he fell. His spear clattered uselessly on the floor. He gathered himself up onto his knees slowly, shocked by what had just happened.
His large dog found him and nudged him encouragingly until he stood. I waited silently in the center of the platform, preparing for what would come next. With murder in his eyes, Drum stepped back over to the edge of the platform and pulled himself up, bringing his spear with him. He expected me to attack him as he got back up, but I didn’t strike when he was most vulnerable. It unnerved him to see me waiting to attack.
Changing tactics, he began to swing the spear overhead with one hand, greatly extending his reach. I waited until he got close and feinted as if I’d go low, trying to get under his spear, but that was what he wanted me to do. I could see his strategy in the way he planned to shift his hands to a two-handed grasp once more and strike when I was within his range. When he drew back to fend off my attack, I ran to the side instead, sliding off of the platform.
Dumbfounded by what he took as surrender, Drum turned to Red and held his hands up. “He ran away!”
Only I hadn’t. I’d gotten him right where I wanted. I slid back through the watching crowd, and without getting back up onto the platform entirely, I was able to slide up onto my belly and grab his ankles. One yank at his feet dropped him right onto his face. A moment later I stood above him with my foot pressing into his hands, forcing him to let go of his spear.
“BEAR!” He screamed, unwilling to give up.
Drum’s massive dog bounded up on top of the platform. The mass of fur and muscle barreled right at me, trying to save his master. I spun to the side, kicking the spear with me as I went.
Dog leaped up and found his place beside me. The two of us, him with his teeth and me with my enemy’s spear, faced down the aptly named Bear as it advanced on us.
“Enough.” Red barked. He held his hands up to signal the end of the combat. Bear backed down immediately, though Drum clearly wanted to continue.
“I am impressed in what I saw. What is your name, new boy?”
“Go.” I answered.
“And your animal?”
“Go and Dog of Pack Panj.” Red repeated, nodding. He was not the sort that would forget it.
Red placed himself between the two of us and our dogs. “Bow to your opponents, Drum and Bear of Pack Chahar. Bow to your opponents, Go and Dog of Pack Panj.”
I bowed to Drum and his dog, though I liked it not. Still, if this was part of what was expected, I’d have to do it. I’d gotten lucky using tricks this time. Next time, Drum would be ready for me. I’d just made him hate me all the more. The look in his eyes promised retribution.
Red ignored the nasty look my opponent favored me with. “Competitors you may be now, but you all serve the same master, and he is your true pack leader, your alpha.” He let that sink in for a moment.
“Now, we’re going to pair off. We will rotate partners every five minutes. Then we will do exercises. You cannot be the most dangerous warriors if you have not mastered your own bodies. We will make you fast, strong, tireless, and flexible. Your dogs will train beside you. Only when dog and man are both in peak condition can you be your most deadly.”
“For those of you that are new here, you will see me three days out of eight. Blue will have you for two. Grey will have you for one. The other two days are your own to rest, to clean yourselves, and to bond with your pack.”
What followed was an exhausting set of exercises, including: grappling, wrestling, weights, running, balance, and weapons training. At least, for the rest of the class, I did not have to face Drum again.
Class ended with a bow to the portrait of the Emperor. Then we were dismissed and sent back to the north wing – the dog house. There, we waited for dinner, and prepared to sleep in shifts, ready for reprisals from Drum and Pack Chahar.
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.
I woke to a pounding on the bars of my cage. I lay in a pile of straw, huddled against Dog. My thoughts felt thick, heavy. Something was not right. The last things I recalled were eating and the caravan resuming its move toward the destination…
“Wake up.” Someone ordered, rattling a stick on the bars. I doubted this was the first time the rattling had occurred.
We must have fallen asleep, but my mouth had an odd taste and my limbs felt leaden. Dog rolled over and stiffly rose. He favored the one leg, but seemed otherwise fine, despite the fog that still clouded our thoughts.
The cage was opened, and several large men with weapons prodded and herded us down a hall into a large open area, under a dazzling sunlight. We entered a sandy square with a statue twice the height of a man in the middle of it. The sun was overhead, and my eyes took a moment to adjust enough to take it all in.
More of a rectangle than a square, the area was open to the air, with the sun beating down on us from a nearly cloudless sky. I blinked several times and shielded my eyes until they adjusted. From the sky, I could tell it was at least midmorning. I turned to slowly to get a better look at the building.
Pillars placed every few paces completely surrounded the rectangle, reminding us that we were still in a cage. Between the pillars were painted mud walls, likely plastered over heavy bricks. The pillars and walls were only broken in four places, each place at the middle of one of the four walls. To the north and south there were large double gates made of wood and banded with iron. They were wide enough for a wagon to drive through. To the east and west, there were small doors, large enough for a person to pass through only. Currently, all four doors and gates were closed. They, like the walls, had a sturdiness about them.
A balconied second floor was above us, open except for a railing and the pillars, which partially obscured sightlines, seeing how they extended all the way to the tiled roof that they held up. Faces lined the north side, those of both dogs and boys spaced around the pillars along the balcony railing. To the east and west, the balconies were mostly empty, except for a few guards in auburn robes and conical helmets stationed at intervals with their halberds or crossbows. To the south, we saw a large, well-outfitted box with luxurious chairs and benches. Official-looking men and well-dressed soldiers filled about half of that box, looking down on us from their gallery.
We stood before the statue that wore a face that I knew belonged to Nokomi’s father. Kalb had mentioned serving an Emperor, and I’d known that Kalb had been with Nokomi’s father on the day I’d first met her, but somehow I’d never really put it together that this meant she was the Emperor’s daughter. Now it all hit me, and I felt exceedingly stupid for not having realized just how different the two of us were. I knew little of social pecking orders, other than that I’d been at the bottom of the social ladder once Dog and I stepped out of the alleys, but I’d never realized just how far apart our stations actually were.
I frowned at the statue and then let my eyes drift over my shoulder to the line of canine faces and the boys that watched us from the balcony railing above the north gate. There were around twenty dogs and the exact same number of boys. They came in a variety of sizes and ages, just like the beasts they were with. Most of them had hard looks about their eyes, while a few looked cruelly amused by our plight, and fewer still wore sympathetic looks. They all knew what was about to befall us, likely having gone through this same thing themselves.
The south gates opened. The boys beside me flinched. There were four of us and four dogs. Dog and I looked to be the oldest of the bunch. There were also four guards with us in the sandy square, one for each pair of a dog and a boy. Beside Dog and I, there was a scrawny boy with a long-limbed dog, each looking as if they might spring off and outrun the fleetest desert cat at any moment. Next to him was a stocky young man, probably just a year younger than myself. He was paired with a squat, mean-looking dog with a triangular head and powerful jaws. The last and youngest of the four of us actually looked the least worried. He stood beside a tiny dog that had already bared its teeth. Like his dog, the boy had his teeth bared in a snarl.
The little dog charged blindly at the south gates as they opened, not even waiting for anyone or anything to emerge. The young boy dutifully tried to follow his dog in the attack, but he was a bit slower. The guard assigned to him lunged and caught him with a padded truncheon, striking him across the shoulders and knocking him to the ground. Sensing his partner’s distress, the boy’s dog wheeled in the sand and charged at the guard instead of the gates. The guard flinched back and tried to protect his shins from the nipping little beast.
Dog and I stared in amazement as the tenacious creature went on the offensive. The boy’s dog was honestly smaller than many rats I’d eaten in the alleys, but it was strangely undaunted by the size and strength of its opponent. The little dog, with ears nearly as large as its body, darted in and seized the guard’s ankle in his mouth, biting hard. Its needle teeth scored a taste of blood through the man’s robes, and the guard howled, shaking his foot and shouting.
That was all the opening the boy needed. He grabbed that raised leg and shoved it upward with all of his might, upending the guard. Moments later, the boy was on top of the guard’s chest, scratching and snarling at his face. The north gallery behind us erupted in a cheers and excited barks as the boy appeared to get the better of his guard. Clearly it was something that the boys and their dogs had always wanted to try.
The moment of victory was short-lived. A barking shout, something not quite human and not quite canine but something in-between, echoed throughout the gallery. The little dog and his boy both froze and turned, as did we all. Even the crowd of boys and dogs behind us quieted in an instant.
Kalb and his mastiff strolled powerfully out onto the sand, and the gate closed behind him and three others, shutting with a thud and a clank that seemed weak after his bark. He came to a stop a few paces in front of us.
“Stand.” Kalb growled.
The little boy and his much smaller dog got off of the guard, who dusted himself off and tried to stand tall behind his charge, but he withered under Kalb’s yellow-eyed glare. Somehow, I doubted we’d see this guard much more, and if we did, he’d certainly try to get even with the boy for the shame he’d just inflicted upon him.
Kalb was not the type to pace back and forth needlessly. He stood front and center from our group and addressed us all, swiveling his sharp eyes as he did so. “You four are at the Kennel. This is your new home. It is where you will learn to serve your purpose.” Teeth, his giant mastiff, stood at attention at his side, almost begging one of us to step out of line.
He held his hands out to indicate the three nearly-identical men that had come out onto the sand with him. “These will be your trainers and teachers.”
All three were dressed in the same uniform, exactly the same except for their colors: one dressed in red, another in blue, and the last in grey. Each had shrewd, dark eyes and sharp, bony features. It was entirely possible that they were brothers. I doubted I’d be able to tell them apart if they all wore the same color of outfit. They wore their hair close-cropped and were clean-shaven, which was something of an oddity. Most men in the city wore beards or at least mustaches. They were symbols of their adulthood and status. The richer and more powerful, the grander the beard they usually wore.
“Your instructors will show you all you need to know, and you will excel at your lessons. You will take everything they say to heart.” Kalb elaborated.
“Red will teach you all you know of fighting.” Red bowed stiffly from the waist as he was introduced. “You will learn to take the best of your raw animal nature and focus it in effective fighting techniques that make the best of your special abilities. Using skills from both beast and man, you will become more efficient killers.”
“Blue will instruct you in tactics and war.” Blue bowed similarly. “You may be called upon to fight in the shadows, upon the battlefield, or as a lone warrior. You will be given instruction on how to overcome your enemies under any circumstances. Even beasts use hunting tactics. They surround, confuse, and stalk their prey. You will learn to work together to overwhelm and surprise your enemies, all in the service of our Emperor, and you will learn how to effectively eliminate enemies by yourself, as needed.”
“Grey will teach you etiquette, manners, and dance.” Grey bowed with a courtly flourish, a smile twisting at the corners of his lips. I looked back and forth at my classmates, surprised by this one.
Kalb’s eyes focused on Dog and me as he explained. “You know how to be beasts. Can you also be men? The Emperor may see fit to hide you in plain sight. If you cannot eat like men, talk like men, and entertain like men, then how can you be his secret weapons? You must learn to be men, but better than men, for your dual nature makes you a savage creature in human guise.”
“Your loyalties are threefold: Respect your Emperor. Respect your teachers. Respect your pack. Without loyalties, we cannot find purpose. Without purpose, we are animals.”
Red, Blue, and Grey bowed as one, and turned sharply on their heels to depart, and our guards left then, as well. The young boy with the small dog shared a glare with his guard as he hurried from the gallery, leaving only Kalb in front of us.
It occurred to me that the four of us might have a chance to overwhelm Kalb and Teeth, killing them if we worked in concert. Yet, that only brought to mind Kalb’s words, what he’d said about learning to work together with the others. We were untrained beasts, and we would fail against a superior foe.
As if reading my thoughts or our body language, Kalb opened his robes at the throat, baring his collared neck. He held his arms wide at his side, inviting attack. “Here is your chance, the last any of you will ever have. After this, you are mine.”
I took a half step forward. Dead silence filled the place. I felt the weight of eyes from behind and the front. Everyone on the second floor was watching, dogs, boys, officers, and soldiers alike. I heard the creak of a bolt being readied in a crossbow in the eastern gallery. Kalb waved a hand in that direction, not even bothering to look. Somehow, we both knew the bolt in the weapon was eased away from my direction.
Despite it being a guaranteed death, I hesitated, foot raised to take another step forward. Dog, wounded though he was, stood poised and ready to follow me into battle. Kalb watched me, only the slightest hint of surprise in his eyes, and something else, was it approval?
As much as I did not care for the situation I’d been placed in, there was one thing I had heard loudest of all: We were to be put in service to the Emperor. If that was true, the there was a chance that I could return to Nokomi’s side if I learned well, because the service of the Emperor could bring me back to the city, and that meant working near Nokomi.
I made up my mind then and there. I would learn my lessons, and I would learn them better than any of these others. I’d learn all they could teach me, and I’d get back to her. I put my foot down and stepped back. Dog feel in line and relaxed beside me.
“Good.” Kalb announced with a smile, covering his neck once more. “Now let us go get you all settled in to your new homes.
National Novel Writing Month 2019: The Emperor's Dogs