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