Strangely, the last meal of the day was delivered in baskets by the guards. The four of us sprang up when we heard the gates open, fully expecting to have to battle our way through another meal. This time, though, there was no mad rush into the hallways. In fact, only our pack went into the halls, only to find a dozen guards carrying baskets our way.
A basket was walked into our room and set on the floor for the four of us. The guard said nothing as he left the basket behind. Our basket bore a symbol I now recognized as the symbol of our pack, having seen it on the signs that Red had held up prior to our lessons. We watched as the guard retreated and the other packs received their baskets. Each basket seemed to be sized and portioned appropriately for the size of the pack it was meant for.
As suddenly as they had arrived, the guards departed, retreating through the gates and bolting them behind them. I expected we’d not be getting out again this evening. Already, the light from outside had begun to fade. Soon, we’d be left in the dark, not that it much mattered to me. I’d always had good night sight, and it seemed to only get stronger the older I got.
The four of us gathered around the basket. It was almost too nice for a place like this. The woven basket had a red cloth inside, and the smells that came from within were nothing short of heavenly. We may have been fed before our midday lessons, but we’d more than used up all the energy that food had given us. Red’s class had left us all drained, tired, and sore.
Legs fell to his knees beside the basket, with his dog’s chin resting on his shoulder. They both eyed it like the people of the city looked at the small idols they prayed to in their homes, as if the basket itself were something divine. His hands shook as he beheld the basket. Tiny was less reserved, following L.D.’s example, he began sniffing at it. Killer watched with an even expression, though his stomach growled audibly. I nodded to him and took my place on the floor beside the basket.
“Let’s open this.” Tiny said encouragingly, but they were clearly waiting for me to open it, being pack leader.
I didn’t hesitate. Dog was at my side, and his saliva rubbed on my elbow as I lifted the flaps of red fabric aside to see what was in the basket. It contained a wealth of delicacies: roasted meats, savory bread, smoked cheeses, and apricot preserves. As a treat, a small bundle of roasted and glazed nuts were tucked inside a small dish. There was enough for everyone. We would not have to fight for this meal or eat food covered in sand.
Legs began crying softly as we handed out the luxurious meal we’d been given. Killer put a steadying hand on Legs’ shoulder and gave him a nod. “Eat.” That was all he said, but it had its intended effect. The eight of us, four humans and four dogs, dug in, eating every last morsel. A carafe of cool water, flavored with citrus and cucumber, washed it down.
We saved the candied nuts for last. I held out the dish, and we each took one to start. Tiny regarded it with suspicion, but we all popped them into our mouths at the same moment. Our eyes went wide with surprise. The salty-sweet crunch with subtle hints of cardamom and honey were enough to make one swoon. We began to laugh and grabbed greedily at the remaining nuts, still careful to not take more than our share. The dogs tried them, but only Dog really seemed to like them. I gave him my last one.
The entire experience of the meal felt surreal. We’d been caged, forced to fight each other, and made roommates of necessity with strangers. The whole last day had all felt so cruel that this simple act of kindness, a pleasant meal, overwhelmed us all. It restored the spirits, and I found myself hating the place a little less. Was this how it would be? Would they work us hard, push us, treat us like beasts, and then feed us well?
A final surprise waited for us at the bottom of the basket: a jar of thick paste, something minty-smelling. I tasted it first, frowning at its bitterness and greasy, powerful taste. It did not seem like food. I spat it out, wishing I had more of the candied nuts to eat to rid my mouth of this new taste. Legs shook his head as he sniffed it, and Tiny shrugged.
Killer took the jar and smelled it. “Liniment, for pain and wounds.” He answered, dipping his fingers into it. He immediately rubbed it into his forearm, where he had a pretty nasty scrape that had already scabbed, but the bruises around it were just beginning to really darken.
We all followed his example, though I did not much care for the greasy feel of it on my skin. Dog didn’t much care for the smell, either. He sneezed and rubbed at his muzzle where a small bit of it had transferred to his nose.
After, since the wash areas were not busy, we made our way down to wash some of the grime from our faces and bodies. The other packs seemed content to laze about after a day of exertions and a filling meal, so we were not bothered as we went about our business. We cleared out quickly, heading back to sleep. With more hard lessons waiting for us tomorrow, sufficient rest would be important.
I set my damp blankets up along the back wall. The others followed my example, settling in toward the back of the room. Among the four of us, Killer was the one to sleep closest to the doorway. He did this on his own, perhaps deciding he was best suited to being the first line of defense against the other packs.
I tried to remain awake, or to sleep in shifts, but the events of the day had left me tired and sore. Dog and I slipped off into sleep almost immediately. Caution failed in the face of exhaustion.
National Novel Writing Month 2019: The Emperor's Dogs