On our second day off, we were let out into the yard after our first meal, as with every other day. There did seem to be a smaller guard contingent out on the walls, but otherwise, it seemed like a normal day.
Yet, unlike a normal day, I had a purpose as I walked the yard. Dog and I set ourselves to scouting out rocks. We were looking for specific shapes and sizes of rocks. We wanted the roundest rocks we could find, and those we found, we pocketed. Dog and I nosed around the edges of the walls and along the sandier areas of the yard where rocks seemed more likely to be exposed to discovery.
Tiny was very interested in what we were doing and came over to check up on us. “What are you doing?”
“Looking for something. Rocks. It’s for a game we used to play in the alleys.” Truth be told, it was a game I’d watched other boys play in the alleys. I’d never played it myself. I’d never had friends to play with.
Tiny took this in stride. Looking for rocks wasn’t the strangest thing I could have asked for, after all. “What kind of rocks do you want?”
“Flat and round, or round-round?”
I stared at him for a moment, and then I showed him the marble-like, spherical stones I’d found already. He looked at them thoughtfully, took one from my hand, and showed it to L.D. Then he gave me back my rock and took off to find more of their own.
Perhaps it was their proximity to the ground, but they managed to find six more rocks that were passable and two that weren’t. Dog and I only found four good ones total. Still, ten rocks between the two of us were enough for a game. I also snagged a chalky rock that would be good for marking walls.
Later, when we were back inside, I washed off the rocks, finding that one of them was a hard clod of clay instead. Still, we were left with nine rocks. That’d have to do.
There was a lot of interest in what I was up to. Even washing the rocks gathered a small crowd. Bull had seen what I was about, although he probably hadn’t understood it, so he showed up and crossed his arms, watching as I retreated into one of the spare rooms with my washed rocks and began marking up the walls.
Honestly, I couldn’t remember all of the rules, and much of what I’d seen had been months ago, before I could understand most of the conversations that had gone on during the game. What I did remember was a couple variations, one played toward a corner or a crack where a wall met the floor. The other was played within a circle. I’d always found the click and clack of rocks knocking into each other and the walls more satisfying, so I set that one up first. There would be time to try the other variation later, if things went well.
I scratched a tan line across the floor about a handspan away from the wall, paralleling the wall as I went. Then I drew a second line parallel to the wall, this one about two paces away from the first.
“You play like this…” I began to explain to the crowd, which now included most of Pack Se, Red from Pack Do, and the boy with the wrinkly dog from Pack Chahar. Apparently, someone messing around in an empty room was much more interesting than lounging about and waiting for the evening meal.
I placed all of the rocks in a pile. I sorted them out into two piles of four, keeping the last rock in my hand. I marked the last rock with my scratching rock, making an X across it in three places, enough that at least part of one X would be noticeable regardless of how it landed.
Then, I knelt behind the second line, the one farther from the wall, and I tossed my marked rock forward, trying to get it as close to the crack between the wall and the floor as possible. It was overthrown, so it clattered against the wall and rebounded nearly back to the closer line I’d drawn.
“You have four throws. You have to get as many of them as possible past the marked stone. Your opponent will attempt to do the same.”
“That seems simple enough.” Tiny declared, seeming a bit disappointed by the simplicity.
“Try it, then.” I offered him four rocks.
He eyed me suspiciously. L.D. sniffed the rocks with some familiarity. He recognized them, even if they’d been washed since he’d helped collect them. He almost looked tempted to urinate on them, but Tiny shoed him aside, earning a snarl. Tiny barked at his dog and the feisty little beast sat down beside him, looking temporarily subdued.
Tiny knelt beside me behind the line and tossed a rock. It clattered forward, stopping short of the line. He frowned. “It didn’t go past the line.”
“So that rock is worthless now, unless you can knock it forward with another, or knock the marked stone back behind it somehow.” I tossed my own rock. It landed past the line, but not in front of the marked rock. “That’s better, but not good enough. Your turn.”
“How do you know who wins?”
“The best rock, the one closest to the wall is worth two. All others past the marked stone are worth one, unless your enemy has any rocks closer to the wall than them.” I decided that last part on a whim. I wasn’t sure if it was correct or not. “Whoever has the most points win.”
“So seven points is a perfect score.” Bull suggested, eyeing the game shrewdly. “Two for the best rock, plus one each for the other three rocks, supposing they are all closer to the wall than any of your enemy’s rocks.”
Bull was clearly better at the scoring and points of the game than I. Perhaps he’d even come up with some other rules, given time. We played the rest of our throws.
Tiny’s second toss was the best throw yet, but I topped it with my second throw, if only because it struck his throw and sent it skittering off the wall and rolling backward past the line. I now had two points to his zero. He glared at me, his momentary celebration cut short. I grinned. Dog did as well, his head swiveling toward Tiny.
Tiny’s third throw was past the marked rock, but not better than my second throw. With my third throw, I rolled one almost to where my second throw had been, but just behind Tiny’s third throw. So far, it was just that one good throw he had to beat to win.
With his last throw, he ricocheted off the wall and nearly struck my good throw. It narrowly missed. I was left with the winning throw and no need to cast my last stone. I did anyway, casting far enough away from my winning throw that there was no chance of sabotaging my win. It was a good toss, nearly as good as the winning through, which earned me another point. I won with three points.
“Again.” Tiny insisted.
“Hey, I want a turn.” Legs argued, hovering over us.
“I call next!” Bull announced.
I held up my hand with the marking rock in it. “Who can keep score? I don’t know my numbers well enough.”
Bull snagged it from my hand, marked something on the wall that must have been my name and put three small marks beneath it. He quickly marked off some more names. Taking the lead, he called off two more names.
“Everyone plays once, and then the best four play each other.” He suggested, but it was more like taking over. He’d taken my game and run with it, and I was happy with that. I was content to sit back and let him organize.
Before we’d all played once, Bull pulled another member of his pack play to even us out at eight people. It was all four of us from Panj, plus four others. I made it out of the second round of playing, only to be defeated by Bull, who had a very careful shot.
By the time Red won, defeating Bull in the final match with a score of only two, we’d gathered quite a crowd. Blankets were brought in so people could sit or kneel in comfort. Others joined in the next round of play. I didn’t do quite as well, but Tiny made it out of the first couple rounds. The room slowly filled up and then overflowed, with some of us even sitting in the halls. It was standing room only inside the room, with cheers erupting every few seconds as the gameplay proceeded.
When baskets arrived for our evening meal, the guards didn’t know what to do or where to put them. It was almost as if some of us didn’t care so much about food with such a diversion around. The baskets were simply placed in our rooms, and the guards retreated in confusion. Rather than segregating for the meals, nearly three full packs ate together, laughing and enjoying the company of our peers. Pack Yek and half of packs Chahar and Do ate in their rooms, but we had all of Panj, Se, and the remaining halves of Chahar and Do with us.
More than once, looks swiveled my way, but they were looks of gratitude, appreciation, and even respect. I nodded back to them, but otherwise kept to myself.
“I see what you did here.” Bull said at length, seated beside me as we ate.
“It’s just rocks.” I offered, smiling.
“It is more than that, and you know it. Some of us have been here a year or more, and nothing like this has ever happened before.”
I shrugged, saying nothing. Just because we were in cages didn’t mean we had to act like it. We could make the best of our time.
“I just wonder what you’ll try next. This is good. It might be a permanent change. Then again, it might not.”
I just sat in silence, chewing my bread. I smiled down at his bulldog, who was eyeing me with that complacent, calm stare of his. Dog perked his ears up at me, almost like he knew what I was thinking.
Around us, I heard another round of the game had started. I sat this one out.
National Novel Writing Month 2019: The Emperor's Dogs