Blue’s class had been followed with a quiet lesson, during which he’d broken down some things he’d noticed about our time in the maze. He called it a debriefing, a time to relate to what we’d experienced and learn from it. The whole time he spoke, he and other classmates kept casting glances my way, none more than Drum. I purposely ignored them, staring straight forward, dedicated to being an attentive student. The truth was, I heard only about half of what he said, and I understood about a fourth of it.
Blue outlined some tactical advice to be attempted on future assignments. It seemed as if we’d be tested differently each time we saw him. I wondered how many more of my tests would be tricks like this one, meant to make me feel as if I were to be torn once more from Nokomi’s side. I felt Kalb’s influence there. A pang of separation hit me once more, and Dog licked my hand, setting his head on my lap. I focused on him, rather than what I felt. An unknown amount of time later, we were dismissed.
That night, a basket was delivered once more, this time with a blue cloth wrapping up the food. Our treat at the bottom this time was slivers of candied ginger. The sugar on the outside of the ginger offset some of the cool burning of the ginger. The dogs wanted nothing to do with it, but the four of us boys all enjoyed it, if only because it was something strange and new.
The interesting thing was that the candied ginger had been wrapped in the handkerchief I’d fought to retrieve earlier. It still smelled of the perfume, although that scent was now mingled with the odors of food from the basket. Beneath the smells of grilled vegetables and roasted lamb coated in a potent garlic and herb oil, I could smell the perfume.
I tucked the handkerchief under my blankets, and none of the pack questioned the act. They all looked at me with understanding, although they understood nothing. They just knew something had set me off, and I’d turned into an animal… or Dog and I had done so together. No one spoke of it, but whatever had happened had caused them to look at me differently, with more respect, like the sort of respect you showed a dangerous animal when you observed it from a close proximity.
We slept instead of speaking of it.
The next morning, it became clear that we’d fallen into the Kennel’s routine quite easily, perhaps because there was no other choice. The routine was: wake, fight for the early meal, stretch our legs in the yard, go to class, clean up, eat dinner, and then sleep. The only things that changed were the specific classes we went to, the pairings of packs at certain classes, and the types of food we received.
After our morning run in the yard, where Dog and I stayed apart once more, ignoring the looks and whispers from some of the other packs, we were summoned inside once more. This time, Grey held up Panj’s symbol. Red and Blue took the other packs. We would go to Grey alone. That was something of a relief, a reprieve from being forced into accompanying Chahar for a third day in a row.
Grey led us down the long hallway of the west wing, up past the two large rooms where Red and Blue were instructing their classes in martial matters. Grey had a set of small rooms at the north end of the wing, each of which he took us through.
Prior to opening the first door, Grey smiled happily at the four of us. “This, is where you will learn to look after yourselves. You are all very shabby-looking, fresh off the streets, and that is not a fitting look for servants of the Emperor. In fact, I won’t even have you bow to his portrait until you are all cleaned up.”
The first room Grey took us into was a room filled with steaming baths. There were attendants wearing only simple cloths wrapped around their midsections, one for each of us. Each attendant scrubbed both boy and dog they were assigned to, working us over with all the delicateness a butcher might show a piece of meat. Clearly we were filthy beasts that needed to be scrubbed clean, even if that took several layers of skin with it. They wielded brushes, cloths, and scented oils like soldiers might wield weapons.
Their jobs done, the attendants drained the muddy bathtubs, while we were wrapped in soft towels and set in front of looking glasses. There, we were taught to look after every aspect of our appearances, from teeth, to skin, to hair.
We were moved to a new room next, each of us smelling fresh and looking cleaner than any of us had likely been since the days we’d come into the world. Again, prior to admittance to this room, Grey had a speech prepared for us.
“Your dogs are also servants of the Emperor, and they must also be cared for as such. They should always be presentable and proper.”
The second room had more attendants, but these ones seemed to be knowledgeable in the care of animals. They took each of us aside in pairs and showed us proper hygiene for dogs. They worried and frowned at Dog’s scratches and scars, the dirty interiors of his ears, and the state of his gum lines. I learned a dozen new things that I’d never had to care about before, things I couldn’t have considered while living in a den in the alleyways.
Dog suffered most of this indignities with fair grace, mostly because I was calm beside him. Had I been agitated, I doubt he would have let the man poke, prod, and examine him. He marveled over Dog, as he’d not seen another of his kind in the close company of a person before. We were something of an oddity even to animal doctors.
Tiny’s little beast gave his attendant the most trouble, drawing blood when the man tried to check his teeth. Apparently, L.D. mistook the man’s fingers for sausages. It was not a mistake he’d make twice.
Eventually, all of our beasts were combed and groomed. Toenails had been filed and clipped, ears were cleaned, scrapes and scratches were treated with balm, and we were all declared fit to enter the third room.
“Now you all look like proper servants of the Emperor. These final rooms,” he indicated three more rooms down his wing, “are where we learn to act like proper young men and agents of the Emperor.”
“In one of these rooms, you will learn how to dress. There are dozens of courtly functions each year, and each one has a very specific code of dress. In the next room, you will learn how to eat like a man, not a beast. It is not enough to look and smell the part. You must also be able to eat and behave like a man.” Grey smiled with a polite wince, as if we were all abominable and ill-mannered creatures. We probably were.
“Finally, you will learn etiquette and dance. To truly be a man of the court, you must be able to speak, dance, and move like a courtier. If you stalk about as a brute, it will be all too clear that you are a soldier. To serve the Emperor, you must be able to blend in with the gentlest of folk. You must be a wolf in a man’s guise, ever careful to keep to your disguise.”
The four of us looked at each other. This was a lot to take in all at once.
“I appreciate that you are overwhelmed. You’ve been raised like wild animals, and you’ve learned to act like beasts for your whole lives. Few understood your connections to your dogs, and fewer still knew how to train you to be the best of both worlds. Red and Blue might teach you to be the best warriors possible, but I will teach you all to be the best men possible.”
“Shall we begin?” He asked eagerly. He was clearly excited by the prospects of molding a new group of young men into proper human-like servants of the Emperor.
It wasn’t exactly an excited bunch of boys answering, but we all said yes. In the end, getting a fresh set of clean clothes was not such a bad thing. But who knew how difficult it could be to put on clothes, to keep them clean, and to not slop food all over oneself while eating?
I had a feeling that Grey’s lessons, while not physically challenging, would be very challenging to us mentally. Patience and manners were not things that came easily to any of us.
National Novel Writing Month 2019