Dog and I had discovered the wonder of coins, as these small metal pieces were called. Strangely, they could be exchanged for things. This made little sense to us. We understood trading a lump of meat for a pile of pomegranates, or trading a persimmon for a handful of dates, but exchanging little metal pieces for any quantity of food whatsoever seemed to be a very poor trade for the merchants. Yet, they were grateful for the little pieces of shiny metal, and we were more than pleased with the food the coins bought us.
Adish gave us a few small coins once every eight days, always on day six, the last day before the two days of rest. He showed us how to string a cord through the middle of them and hide them in a pocket, or under my shirt. Apparently he thought some pickpocket or cutpurse might lift them from my person without me noticing. He didn’t understand how serious I was about food or the coins that could buy food. Of course, even if someone was good enough to sneak them from my possession, Dog would certainly not let them get away with that. I laughed at the idea, but gave in to his suggestions, but only because I didn’t want to drop any of the precious metal bits that could be traded for delicious things.
So, Dog and I began walking about the Lower Market on our days off. At first, the merchants eyed us with distrust, me more than Dog, but as they came to know that we at least carried some money, they began trying to attract our interest with their wares. It was curious how their attitudes shifted when you shook a pocket with a cord of coins for them. The jingling metal noises produced an immediate change in their demeanors. Such simple creatures, they were.
While the assortments of colorful beads, the rainbows of cloth, and the shiny metal instruments were curious things to gaze upon, they could not fill our bellies, and we found them to be a waste of time. Dog and I didn’t much care for the vendors of caged beasts, either, though some of them did look delicious. We learned to steer clear of the stalls with dozens of small boxes filled with ground powders, spices, seeds, and herbs that made Dog sneeze, too. Instead, we went to the fruit sellers and the small cook sheds that sold spiced and grilled meats.
In our first two visits to the Lower Market, Dog and I sniffed out a particularly savory-smelling meat vendor. We stood in line, the two of us salivating profusely as we watched meat turn on a spit, sizzling and popping as the fat dripped onto the coals below. It was intoxicating as no other scent we’d ever experienced. When our turn came in line to purchase the meat, I was dumbfounded, unable to speak, so hungry had we become. It didn’t help that Dog’s sense of smell spilled over onto mine, and I could taste the meat so intensely, even though I’d not put a single morsel of it into my mouth yet!
I threw my whole cord of coins onto the counter and held out my hands to receive whatever meat he offered. Even if I had understood haggling and bargaining, I’d not have had the presence of mind to attempt it. The sweaty, bearded man behind the counter snagged the coins off the counter, cord and all, rolling the bundle over in his hand as he counted it. He eyed me, then glanced down at my companion, who licked his chops. Snorting a quick laugh, he sawed off a sizeable portion and then a second, smaller one to go with it.
The man nearly lost a hand as we grabbed for the meat. Dog, paws up on the counter, got the larger portion, and I didn’t begrudge him. He had eaten less earlier in the day. The two of us snarled and gobbled it down like a pair of savage animals. We were unaware and uncaring of the looks from the crowd around us. Never had we tasted such a tasty thing. Adish certainly didn’t offer us any food that tasted like this.
Bellies full, we licked our fingers and lips and walked off, pleased with ourselves, at least until we saw other meats and delicacies we no longer had coins for. Dog and I gave each other a look, and we both decided right then and there to make sure we saved some of our money the next week so we could sample other things. Still, we looked around, familiarizing ourselves with the layout of the place, as we had little else to do.
In the place of a few weeks, we’d gone from having nothing to do but survive the day to having spare time. For the first time in our lives, we truly experienced what it was to have idle time. Later, we retreated to our den to sleep, smelling that wondrous meat on each other’s breath. Dog licked my face and tried to do the same to my hands once or twice, but I rolled over, refusing to let him steal that savory smell from my fingers.
The next time we went back to the meat seller, we returned with more composure. We stood in line like normal customers, salivating a bit less than before, and I even managed to speak when it was my turn. “Meat for two.” I nodded toward Dog to indicate he’d get a portion.
The sweaty, bearded man recognized us and held out his hand for payment. This time, I carefully pulled a few coins from my cord. When shook his fingers to indicate a couple more, I reluctantly surrendered two more, keeping a few more myself. He eyed us and smiled.
Once again, we found ourselves in a meat-caused state of bliss. Sighing contentedly, I grinned and decided to offer my thanks to the cook, as Barid and Adish had explained was polite.
“This is most tasty rat.” I declared, nodding and smiling broadly.
The line of customers all turned to look at me. They began whispering amongst themselves and several made noises of disgust and walked away. Had I said something wrong?
The man’s dark face went bright red. Stuttering and lost for words after my compliment, he finally managed to shout, “What are you saying, you miscreant? How dare you? This is the finest goat in the Lower Market!”
I laughed. I’d eaten rat a thousand times, and I knew its taste well, hidden with delicious spices or not. “I shall be back next week!” Dog barked in agreement.
“Get out of here! Go!” The other words that followed had no meaning to me, but they sounded quite emphatic.
“Delicious rat!” I shouted happily, walking away, wondering how he’d learned my name already.
National Novel Writing Month 2019: The Emperor's Dogs