I could hear Legs and his dog approach. The scraping of boots and a dog’s toenails announced their arrival. I hurried to the door and let them in quickly, glancing around the pathways of our little village, but no one was watching. The dogs greeted each other while we clasped hands and clapped each other across the back.
In the hours since witnessing General Navid’s audience with the Emperor, I’d eagerly awaited this meeting. In my time fighting on the border to protect our kingdom’s interests, I rarely had opportunities to catch up with one of my old pack mates from the Kennel. We had a shared history that made us close, no matter what had happened since.
Legs removed his boots, placing them beside the door, and moved to join me at the small table I’d had set up in the middle of the floor. His dog settled in beside him, resting its muzzle on his lap. Dog circled the table once and then settled in between me and Leg’s dog.
“Just like the old days.” Legs remarked, eyeing the basket sitting in the middle of the table.
During our days at that special school, each day’s lessons had been followed by an evening meal with a basket of food that we shared amongst our pack. Each instructor had left special cloths in the basket, so you always knew if you’d seen Red, Blue, or Grey that day. Our performances in the different subjects they taught had resulted in different rewards. On a good day in class, there had been better treats in the basket. So, I’d purposely chosen a white cloth for this basket, seeing as how it had no attached meaning to it, and it would not be associated with any negative memories.
Our pack, Pack Panj, had been the fifth group at the school. We’d been the junior team, younger and less experienced than all of the others. Despite some initial successes, it had taken weeks of punishing, grueling lessons before we’d started to hold our own. Some of that had largely been due to my own nature, but much had been because of our collaborations with other packs, those willing to train us during off times.
We’d turned enemies into allies, growing in strength until we could consistently defeat our rival, Pack Chahar. In the end, those victories had cost one of our pack more than even I liked to admit. Pack Chahar’s leader, Drum, had taken out his frustrations and anger on Tiny. Tiny had been the smallest member of our team, and his dog had been even smaller, a tenacious handful of a dog. Drum’s beast of a dog, Bear, had killed Little Dog in a fit of rage, and the death of his dog had nearly killed Tiny as well.
The Emperor, witness to the murder of Little Dog, had allowed the packs to decide upon Drum’s sentence and me to carry it out. I’d ripped his throat out while half given to my beast. Somewhere between animal and man, I’d watched the blood flow from Drum’s ruined throat to color the sand. That death had been the final thing needed to change the Kennel.
We’d unified into a single pack: Pack Sefr. Kalb had overseen the restructuring of the school and its lessons according to our demands, and the Emperor got the army he’d desired. I’d trained dozens of kids and their dogs since that day, but that had been where it all started.
“All or nothing.” I whispered, a mantra to honor the fallen. Sefr meant zero, or nothing. We were all together, we of the Old Blood, or we would amount to nothing.
“All or nothing.” Legs echoed sadly, clearly recalling Tiny and Little Dog.
We dug into the basket, pulling out the smoked meat, dried apricots, and dark bread I’d procured for this meeting. A carafe of lemon water and two small cups sat beside it. We ate quietly, enjoying the simple flavors.
“Have you seen any of the others?” Legs asked as he finished the last bite of apricots.
I tried to recall when I’d last seen any of the faces from the Kennel and my days there. It felt like lifetimes ago. “I served with Killer and Scar when we put down the bandits near Gorla. The last time I saw Face was near Epim. He may still be stationed there. I’d also heard that Sardar and several of Pack Yek are together somewhere, but they’re working on guard duty. They’re not much for killing, but protecting is something they do well.”
Legs nodded, absorbing the news.
“And you?” I asked.
“I haven’t seen any of the others in a couple years. My last contact was with Fire and Mongrel. We were scouts together for several months. I was there when they died.” Legs admitted, playing with the fringe of the white cloth that hung from the basket.
“How did it happen?” I’d known of their deaths, but I wasn’t privy to such information. Someone hadn’t thought I needed to know.
“We were scouting an encampment near Uman. It was a trap. We fought and took several of them out before our backup arrived, but we’re not faster than arrows.” He bared his left arm to show a scar that must’ve hurt.
“Most of us aren’t faster than arrows anyway.” I knew he’d been hurt, but if anyone I’d ever met could dodge an arrow meant as a kill shot, it would be Legs.
Legs laughed, but quickly sobered. “Yeah, but I wasn’t about to leave them behind. Their dogs fell alongside them.”
“That was probably for the best.” I said softly.
“I know.” He agreed. “Have you heard anything from Tiny? Anything at all?”
Tiny had been given a chance to bond with the same dog that had killed his own, but he’d never been the same afterward. Bonding with Bear might have kept him alive, but they were both damaged creatures. It had been Sardar, the oldest boy from the Kennel, who’d told us about the re-bonding process. He’d also lived through a loss and bonded with a dog that would have died from the loss of a master. Together, they’d cobbled together a new existence, not better or worse than their original bonds, but different.
I eyed Legs for a moment, trying to decide how much he needed to know. I’d heard rumors, but I knew little more than what I’d known since Tiny had left the Kennel. “You know that Tiny left us, Legs. He headed out into the desert, last I heard. He spoke to me before he went. He was never going to be a soldier again. He couldn’t risk losing another dog, or he would have died for certain. He’d lost his will to fight and kill.”
“I wonder if he was the lucky one.” Legs sighed, playing with his dog’s muzzle. “He got out.”
“He did.” I agreed, though I did not envy what he had gone through to get out. And honestly, I wasn’t sure I wanted out.
I’d found that I actually enjoyed training new boys and dogs to grow their bonds, to reach for their own versions of the beasts that lurked in their natures. I may not have always agreed with what they were being used for, but I enjoyed the teaching. I also knew I would have fought for a dozen more years and killed a hundred men if that was what it would have taken to get back to Nokomi.
“But what of General Navid?” I asked. “How is it that he came to know of us and to select you for his honor guard?”
Legs’ long face darkened. “It was his mission that Fire and Mongrel died on. He was in the vanguard of the force that came to our rescue. We were fighting for our lives, and he saw that we were different. Normal men don’t fight like we do. He saw a bit of the beast in me. It was too late for him to see the others changed in battle.”
So he blamed Navid for their deaths, at least in part? I frowned at that, but had deeper worries. “And now he knows everything?”
Legs shook his head. “No. He questioned me at length about where I’d learned what I knew, how I’d trained, and how many more of us there were.”
“He isn’t the type to let such a thing go.”
“No, he didn’t. He was insistent, so I was vague, mentioning that I’d been trained with a small group of boys, and that he’d just witnessed most of their deaths. For a long time, I played it off as if we were just a special scout division, but he had seen too much.”
“He must have scoured the army for more boys with dogs like you.” I surmised.
“He did. He even found a few of his own in the cities we went through. Two of those that arrived today are like us, of the Old Blood, but they were never at the Kennel or one of the other schools.”
“Raw talent.” I appreciated that, but didn’t like what it would mean if they were honed and sharpened into the type of tools that Navid required.
Navid didn’t understand what we were, and he would not be able to work with our kind in the ways we needed. That’s why Kalb had overseen the school’s transition, and why I had assisted in redesigning the instruction. Like any animal, we had needs that had to be met, and it took one like him or I to make sure we were shown how to reach our full potential. Much in the way a dog can be trained to be loyal and protect a family, that same dog can also be turned into a dangerous killer if it is not raised right.
“Things are in motion, Legs. These are dangerous times, and General Navid looks to be trying to create a force loyal to him.”
Legs nodded in agreement. He’d witnessed some of these things firsthand. “Just let me know what I can do, Go.”
“Listen carefully to every word General Navid says.” I suggested. “Figure out what he is and is not saying, and report back to me when you can. Be discrete, and understand that our true loyalty is to the Emperor and not to his brother.”
“And to Pack Sefr.” Legs smiled, patting his dog’s head.
“Pack Sefr.” I nodded, but I knew where my true loyalty was, and I wondered what she was doing at that moment.
National Novel Writing Month 2019: The Emperor's Dogs