For years Dog and I lived on the streets, but life was not as it had been. We grew craftier, smarter, and more human. We’d realized that we needed to grow, not only in size and stature, but in knowledge. Nokomi had taught us that, whether she’d meant to or not.
Many hours were spent listening to the folk of the markets and city, learning their tongues. It was very confusing at first, and it came as something of a breakthrough one day when we realized that these peoples were as different from each other as birds and elephants, so they spoke different languages. How odd it was to think of all these people knowing so many sounds, but still be unable to converse. It was an enlightening and despairing day that led me to nearly give up on ever speaking.
Then we received a job one day. A metalworker’s assistant had gone home sick, and he’d struggled to work both the bellows and the metal, and he’d seen me watching him. I loved the sparks and fire. Dog and I found the little fireflies of light that danced around his falling hammers to be hypnotizing. A few gruff syllables later and a lot of gesturing, I found myself invited in to work the bellows.
Warily, I began to work the bellows, earning an education beside this man named Adish. He instructed me, first with gestures, and later with words that I learned to be commands. Dog watched with great amusement at first when I overworked the bellows, working up a great heat as a tired myself out. Eventually, I learned to get it just right, and with it, I understood the value of words.
Now Dog and I were not working for charity, mind you. After a day’s work, Adish offered us a few shiny pieces of metal. When we had little use for them, he offered us food and drink. Those we took, eagerly. He didn’t seem surprised when we showed up the next day, looking for the same arrangement. His assistant was back, but he had the boy show us what needed being done, and we learned more of their sounds.
After a few days in a row, Dog and I always expected Adish to be there with his food. Strangely, one day he was not. Our stomachs rumbled and grumbled that day. Upset at our fortune, we set about the market and rustled up some food from some unsuspecting smoked meat sellers.
We’d given up on Adish, but it didn’t sit well with us. We passed his way a few days later, only to find him hard at work again. It was confusing, but we were welcomed in again, and his food was as delicious as ever, if strangely flavored.
It was thus that we learned of weeks and numbers. Barid, the boy who worked for Adish, taught us the way to count with fingers, and the names of the eight days. We came to understand that of the eight days, there were two on which there was no work to be done.
This became our routine, Dog and I would visit Adish’s shop to learn words and metalworking on six days out of eight, and we would wander the Bazaar and the Lower Market the other two. We never went hungry, and, in fact, we both grew quite strong and healthy for the first time in our lives. Barid even gave me some of his clothes, ones that were too small for him, as he was a few years ahead of me, as he told it, but I was quickly gaining on him in size and I suspected I’d already surpassed him in strength.
And there was one more lesson we learned for Adish and Barid, that being the meaning of those curious rounds of metal that jingled in people’s pockets. For us, they unlocked the secrets of money. As our worth to the man grew, we began getting paid not only in food, but also in coins.
It was with those coins that we went into the market one day, one of the two days that Adish did not work. It was those coins that brought us once more into Nokomi’s presence.
National Novel Writing Month 2019: The Emperor's Dogs