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.
National Novel Writing Month 2019: The Emperor's Dogs