Our next breakfast was much the same as the day before, a fight with the others for our meal. This time, we knew what to expect, and we came out a little bit better off than we had our first time around. Dog and I also helped gather food, mostly by running interference for Tiny and his little partner. Killer, as the day before, guarded our food.
Legs struggled after his initial plunder, because speed only works for the first strike. After that, he lacked the initiative and aggressive nature it would have taken to push through to get more. He apologized, but it wasn’t necessary, as he still managed to get the nicest piece of meat in our haul. Additionally, Tiny had been far more effective, mostly because Drum and Bear were stalking Dog and I, leaving some of Chahar’s potential haul vulnerable.
We ate in silence, not relishing the food, but certainly not wasting it. After what we’d eaten the night before, we certainly weren’t going to attack sandy piles of food with a whole lot of gusto. No, I ate somewhat more carefully, dusting off the food and eating around smashed spots. Looking around, I saw the others were doing the same. I suppose we’d become something of food snobs after a single basket of nice food.
“This is a strange place.” I whispered conspiratorially to my pack. They all looked up to listen, waiting for me to go on. “One moment, they encourage us to act like animals. The next, we’re treated like people.”
“Which one are we supposed to be?” Tiny wondered aloud, touching on something we all felt.
“Like both.” Killer suggested. “The Emperor will have need for men who can be both.” Red had said as much, and Killer’s words made it seem all that much truer.
We were let out through the east gate to wander the yards and stretch our legs. I mulled over what we’d experienced and couldn’t find any flaw to his thinking. It was a strange path we walked, straddling the line between beast and man, the best of both words wrapped in a dangerous package.
Dog and I ran a bit, alternating it with walking. We kept to ourselves, stretching our legs and letting our food digest. I wanted my food to be settled before our next class. It would be either Blue or Grey today, and Blue seemed more likely, as we would have it more often than Grey.
Dog and I had always run a lot in the alleys. Even though we’d only been here for two days, we both missed it. You did that sort of a thing, dodging through narrow passages and avoiding detection or capture. Despite surviving by taking things from other people, I’d never thought of myself as a thief. We’d just been hungry. Dog and I had needed something that other people had plenty of. Even the best thieves couldn’t always get away clean. When we grabbed something from a market stall or an open window, we were seen sometimes, and we’d have to run away. Hearts hammering in our chests, it was almost like a game, one where getting caught might result in losing a hand or getting thrown into jail. Running in the yard gave us a little of that sense of freedom, even if it was quite limited, and if it lacked the thrill of the escape.
Dog and I had lived for years by ourselves. We’d always been able to come and go as we pleased. There had been no place we couldn’t go if we put our minds to it. Now, we came and went as they told us, on a schedule set by men we didn’t know.
When we were summoned back inside by the bells, we lined up once more in front of our instructors. This time, we were called forward to stand beside Blue, who held up the symbol for our pack. Once more, we were paired up with Chahar. That didn’t bode well. Surely they’d want revenge for yesterday. Although, truth be told, other than the initial bout between Drum and I, it had mostly gone their way. We’d all tried to give as well as we’d been given, but I was sure we had a larger share of bruises and scrapes than they did. Chahar had more training than, and it showed. We certainly had a lot of catching up to do.
Packs Do and Yek were lined up with Red today, and Pack Se was lined up with Grey. The members of Pack Se seemed pleased by this. Perhaps we’d have something to look forward to with Grey’s lessons? I couldn’t recall how Pack Yek had looked after our lessons yesterday, having been too exhausted to care, so I didn’t remember if they’d returned to their room as exhausted as we had been. That would have to wait and see. Perhaps tomorrow, we’d learn.
Blue led us into the same hallway as yesterday, only we were the next large room over. I expected to find another room with weapons on one side and fighting circles on the floor, but was confronted with an entirely different room. It was not at all what I expected, but it seemed as if it might just be a good thing.
We were staring at a maze of passages, all made from movable walls too tall to see over. Because many of them had been closed off overhead as well, the passages between them were often dark, and we could not see past the first bend down any of the three routes offered.
“As servants of your Emperor, you will be asked to perform many tasks. Some will be difficult. Some will be routine. Today’s task is to search for a handkerchief.”
“A handkerchief?” Drum scoffed.
Blue’s sharp gaze swiveled his way, and he quickly looked at his feet. “It is not your place to question what is asked of you. If the Emperor gives you a seemingly strange order, it is still to be followed, as you may not understand the importance of what is being asked of you. After all, you are his dogs, and he is your master.”
“What does the handkerchief look like?” Tiny, standing beside me, asked.
Blue’s face shifted into a mysterious smile. “That, is a good question.” Even if it had been a good question, it was a question he refused to answer.
He chose three of us seemingly at random, making each student first bark and bow to the portrait of the Emperor that hung over the doorway. Only, this portrait also included other faces. The Emperor was at the front and center of the portrait, dominating the frame. A dark-haired and beautiful woman, likely his mate, stood behind and to the left of him, and two younger girls filled the portrait’s right side. One of those girls I recognized immediately as Nokomi, while the other was similar and yet different, likely an older sister.
“As the Emperor wills.” Blue announced, sending Legs and two members of Pack Chahar into the maze, one at each entry point. Legs cast us a forlorn look, and then vanished into the wooden passageways as he’d been directed.
The rest of us waited, standing there and listening to the noises of dogs and boys as they progressed through the maze. This room was somewhat wider than the one we’d trained in the previous day, although the ceiling was of the same height and it appeared to be about the same depth.
Once or twice, we heard baying, as one of the hounds from Pack Chahar seemed to have scented something. Occasionally, we’d hear scratching or some sort of scuffling about. Then we heard a yelp, and some grunts of pain and struggle.
“What’s in there?” I asked our instructor.
He smiled and shrugged. “It will be different for each group. Life is an ever-changing series of challenges.”
We waited, watching and listening. After an unknown amount of time, a time that seemed close to an eternity, a red flag on a long pole waved from the back end of the room. This seemed like the signal for the next batch of us to enter the maze, but Blue held us back with outstretched hands. Anxious to see who was next, we waited for him to make his choices.
Instead, we heard clanking, grinding, and shifting inside the maze. Once or twice we saw flashes of auburn. Were there guards inside the maze? What purpose did they have? Would we have to fight them? Were they moving the obstacles? I’d have to wait to see. I could do nothing else.
A green flag waved from the back of the room, and Blue finally chose three more of us, again seemingly at random. Tiny was chosen, along with a long-haired dog from Chahar and a small, brown mongrel from Chahar.
This round went much like the last, except we heard snarling and L.D.’s excited yips at one point. After several minutes, the red flag waved again. Once more, the maze shifted around. This time, a few of the closer walls moved. I could see the tops of the obstacles being readjusted.
Killer and I were all that was left of Panj. From Chahar, there were also two members left: Drum and another boy with a shaved head and a wrinkly, short-haired dog that seemed little more than a pup. Both the wrinkly dog and the boy had a kindly look about them.
When the green flag flew, I fully expected Killer to be sent in with the boy, and then Drum and I would get paired up once again. Instead, Blue indicated that I was to be sent in alone.
I sent a questioning look at Blue, but his expression was unreadable. He said nothing, except, “You’d better go quickly.”
Killer gave me a reassuring nod, and I did not wait any longer. I had three choices of paths, so I took the one that looked, at least from the start, to be the least straight-forward route. Sometimes, I’d learned, going the hardest-looking route was actually the easiest. I hoped it was true this time, too.
Dog and I sprang forward, darting into the course. We opened our noses as we ran, taking in the scents and odors. We smelled wood and the chemicals that had been used to treat the panels that boxed us in. The scents of the dogs and boys that had passed this way before also filled our nostrils. Still, there was a hint of something very faint in the air, something familiar.
The passage ahead narrowed, closed off from the ceiling and the floor. Only a small crawlspace existed. Dog and I negotiated that easily enough, having been squeezing through small spaces for years. A large animal like Drum’s dog wouldn’t fit through.
The passage forked. We went straight instead of heading in the direction I knew the flags were. The far end of the room was where the flags were being waved, but I didn’t want to get out of the maze. No, I needed to find something, so Dog and I let our noses lead the way.
Up ahead I heard the whispers of feet on packed clay. Dog looked at me and I looked back. We both smelled a trap. Grinning at each other, we tiptoed forward warily, only to find the walls starting to collapse around us. Dropping low, we crawled as the obstacles crumbled above us, leaving us barely enough room to move beneath them.
Clear of the collapsing walls, we continued after the scent, which grew stronger as we moved deeper into the maze. Dog’s led the way, so it was his paw that caught on a string that ran across the passage floor; flares burst afire around us, and the flashing brightness made our pupils contract. I shielded my eyes and untangled Dog’s paw, pushing forward once more.
From the entry, I heard movement. A deep growl filled the room, and a whoop of glee I knew came from Drum. I’d known him all of two days, and I recognized his voice easily. What was this? In other places, I also heard movement.
Now, Blue’s words made sense. Dog and I were being chased. Not only did we have to find the handkerchief, but we also had to do so before we were caught by the last three participants. Blue’s words echoed in my ears: “Life is an ever-changing series of challenges.”
Well, Dog and I weren’t going to let those challenges get the better of us. We pushed forward into a series of darker passages, covered overhead with musty-smelling, heavy fabric to cut the light down to almost nothing, all the while messing with our senses of smell. Dog and I were no strangers to mildew and rot. Like a sweet undertone, I could still sense the scent we’d been hunting.
The bright flares from before made it hard to see. Our eyes had not adjusted back to the darkness, but our ears were still sharp, and we heard someone rapidly approaching, although the echoes made it hard to tell from where they were coming. Unexpectedly, the young boy and his wrinkly dog burst out from an unseen side passage and came upon us. Much like Red’s class from the day before, we were forced into grappling combat. I was larger than him, and probably stronger, but he’d gotten the jump on me. He had me pinned against the wall, while his dog tried to subdue my Dog.
As we fought, breathing heavily and shoving each other back and forth into the walls, I heard Drum and Bear cursing back the way we’d come from. Had he gotten stuck in the narrow passage? Killer would be closing in, too, and that was one fight I dared not participate in. I knew I’d lose.
I stuck my leg out behind the boy’s foot and gave him a heavy shove. He stumbled backward into the wall and ended up in a pile on top of his own dog. The boy groaned as his head bounced off the wall. Dog snarled in their faces and we bolted further down the passage. Time was running out.
Abandoning caution, we threw ourselves headlong down the passages, darting right, going straight at a fork, and vaulting over a series of uneven crates that shifted as we climbed over them. Up ahead, I saw auburn. Dog yipped excitedly. The smell was stronger than ever. It was floral, delicate, and intensely familiar.
Three guards stood around someone on the floor, someone kneeling. My heart thundered wildly, my eyes opening to their fullest. The smell, the dark hair, and the white dress. Could it be?
The guards rounded on us. They stood in a four-way intersection, facing outward in a triangle formation, surrounding the girl that was kneeling between them. Dog’s round ears perked as the girl turned our way. We saw a flutter of a colored handkerchief in her hand, but we could not see her face.
“Nokomi!” I shouted, darting in, Dog beside me.
Just days ago, we’d lived through this. We’d been separated from Nokomi by guards. Kalb had separated us, and now we’d get her back. This time, we’d not be kept apart. The guards wore padded armor and warded us off with blunted spears and wooden swords, but they might as well have been fully armored and using metal weapons for all we cared.
We fell upon the guards with a fury I’d never felt before. We’d always fought to survive before, never to protect, never to rescue a friend. It was an alien feeling, and yet a good one.
Dog was not much heavier than myself, but he was a jumper. He threw himself at the right guard’s face. Instinct dictated that the man would cover up to protect his face and throat. That gave me an opening. The middle guard, who’d thought I was going to attack him, found himself without a target. Instead, I went after the right guard as well, knocking his legs out from underneath him.
Snarling, I stomped heavily on the man’s chest and latched myself on the next man’s legs, biting and snarling as Dog backed me up. I felt a blow on my shoulders, but shook it off, biting harder as the guardsman screamed and struck at my head and tried to shake me off.
With a shove, I threw the man into the walls. The temporary structure collapsed, leaving him in a pile, covered by wooden planks. A scream filled my ears.
Dog and I threw ourselves at the last guard. He deflected my attack with his staff, shouldering me into a wall. When he brought his staff back around too slowly, Dog latched himself on the man’s arm and took him to the ground. I recovered quickly, shaking off my daze, and pounced on the man, pummeling his face.
More screams, from Nokomi. We turned to her, expecting to find one or more of the guards recovered enough to threaten her once more, something we would not allow. We’d kill them all if need be. Bloodthirst - it was a new feeling for me.
Instead, we found a stranger’s face staring at us with a look of terror upon it. Dark-haired and dressed in white this girl might be, but it was not Nokomi. It was even the same scent upon her handkerchief. Dog trotted over and sniffed at her, but he knew the truth. His head swiveled my way and his ears drooped in a very human look of disappointment.
Drum and Bear stood at the end of one passage, some ten paces away. The look he gave us frightened me. Even Bear, massive though he was, didn’t want anything to do with us right now. I could smell fear on them both.
The guards started to recover, but they were all bleeding and bruised in one way or another, and they made no move to stop us from taking the handkerchief from the girl. She shied away from us, flinching back as we took it. She, too, feared that we might hurt her, as if we would turn upon her and devour her like wild beasts.
We exited the maze then, walking right past Killer and his dog. He and his dog looked at us differently, too, but it was not fear we saw and smelled on them. It was satisfaction. It was loyalty. It was servitude. Had our portrait been upon that wall above the entry, I had no doubt he would have barked and bowed to us at that moment.
The rest of packs Panj and Chahar waited for us outside the maze. A pair of guards in auburn looked at us with pale faces as we exited. I didn’t need a looking glass to know that we had blood on our faces.
They waved the last red flag of the day.
National Novel Writing Month 2019: The Emperor's Dogs