The new week started much like the last, with a sand-covered breakfast. I ate it without relish, frowning at my fellows as we did so.
“This is not right.” I said, spitting out a mushy part of a zucchini that had been stepped on.
“It’s this or go hungry.” Legs was ignoring the sand and burying his face in a piece of fruit that was nearly unrecognizable.
“Maybe we should go hungry then.” I remarked, tossing the food aside.
Tiny laughed at this idea. “You want to do Red’s class on an empty stomach? Good luck. Chahar will pound you into the ground if you don’t have the energy to fight back.”
Legs nodded emphatically in agreement. He still chewed at what I took to be the white insides of a quince. It wasn’t very appetizing, whatever it was.
Killer looked around at the faces that surrounded him, torn between his belly and his loyalty to me. In the end, his stomach won out. “We need the energy. Eat, Go, and we can try to fix this later.”
Sighing, I knew he was right. I picked up a chunk of meat and took a bite, swallowing grit with it. “It can’t come soon enough.”
Truthfully, I’d eaten dirty castoffs and moldy food much of my life. It wasn’t that I couldn’t eat it. It was how it was presented to us. If I only managed to scavenge a moldy bread crust one day, that was my fault. If I found better, of course I’d eat it. Sometimes, given the choice between rotten food and no food, I’d chosen no food. Here, we were just handed food, but they still couldn’t feed it to us in a way that treated us like people. They insisted on this humiliating fashion of feeding us one meal of a day just to remind us that we were only as good as beasts – until they needed us to be something more than that.
Killer met my gaze. “If we get others to join us, maybe they will change things. If it’s only the four of us, it will change nothing.”
I smiled and nodded. We’d made some headway with the game yesterday, joining nearly three packs for a single meal. If we could all come together, or at least most of us, we might be able to convince them to stop feeding us like animals.
Dog was watching something. I followed his gaze to a man in green watching us from the decorated box seats on the south balcony. Leaning over the rail, his piercing eyes were upon me. He made no attempt to disguise the fact that he was watching me.
I nudged Legs and Tiny, nodding toward the man in green. Killer turned as well, looking at the man. He met our eyes without hesitation. From his features, he could easily have been Blue, Red, or Grey, except that he wore a green uniform.
“Who is he?” Tiny wondered aloud.
“I don’t know.” I frowned. “I’m sure we will learn soon enough.”
I glanced around the gallery, but no one else seemed to have noticed him, except for Pack Yek. All eight of them had eyes on Green, until he turned and walked away. Then, they turned as one to look at me. I squirmed under the collective weight of their gazes, but continued to stare back at them. They broke first, turning in toward each other to whisper.
When we went outside into the yard, I struck out across the sand and scrub grass and headed immediately toward Bull and pack Se. This was something of a breach of decorum. Normally, packs would melt away, and you could meet a straggler out away from the pack, but you would not approach a whole pack to speak. To do so was something of a challenge.
Pack Se, normally so calm, bristled at me. Bull held up a hand to still the pack. His bulldog eyed me warily. “Go? What is it?”
“Green. Did you see him?”
Bull’s head cocked to the side at me, a canine look of confusion. It would have been comical had his face not been so serious. “Green? He’s here?”
“He was in the gallery watching me.”
Bull stepped away from his pack and sent a searching look out at the walls. The auburn guards paced at even intervals, as always. Everything about this morning was normal, except for the appearance of Green back in the gallery.
“Green is dangerous.” Bull whispered to me.
“Who is he?”
“He’s another instructor. I’ve only seen him once or twice before. He reports directly to Yellow-Eyes.”
“Who is Yellow-Eyes?”
Bull smiled at me as if I were being stupid. “The bearded man with the big dog? The one who addressed your new pack on your first day here?”
“Oh. Kalb. You call him Yellow-Eyes…”
“Kalb?” Bull looked astonished. “Is that his name?”
“That’s what Nokomi, the Emperor’s daughter called him. I suppose that is his name.”
Bull couldn’t have looked more surprised had I reached out and smacked him across the face. “Nokomi? The Emperor’s Daughter? Go, how exactly did you get here?”
“I was caught in the Bazaar with Nokomi. She is my friend. I’ve known her since we were both very small children. We met one day in the streets. Dog and I killed a desert cat to protect her.”
“So you know the Emperor’s daughter…”
“I met the Emperor that day, also. He showed up with Kalb, your Yellow-Eyes. They thought she needed to be protected from me, I think. I ran from them then, but he caught me just a few days ago, just when I’d finally met her again.”
Bull nodded slowly, taking in the details of my story. He thought before speaking, looking once more at the guards. He whispered to me then, conspiratorially, “If what you say is true, then you are to be watched. It explains why Green is watching you. None of us here was personally captured and recruited by Yellow-Eyes. None of us have met the Emperor or his daughter, either.”
“Does that matter?”
“Because, Yellow-Eyes used to tell us a story of a boy that saved the Emperor’s daughter. That boy… No. If what you say is truth, then you are the cause of this whole place, of us being brought here.”
I stared at Bull, a mixture of horror and surprise on my face. I was the reason this place existed? I was why all of these boys had been brought here and treated this way?
“You see, if one of our kind could protect his daughter so well, what would an army of boys like us be able to do for the Emperor?” There was a flinty hardness to Bull’s eyes. He did not blame me for what had brought him here, but I could tell that he was not entirely fine with my involvement either.
“What does Green coming here have to do with me?”
“I think your little game roused them. Becoming one pack… is this what they want, or does it scare them?”
“I must be true to myself, Bull.” I replied, causing Dog to yip in agreement.
“True, but we must all be true to ourselves. I think that your past is a story that many here would not be ready for. If you shared it freely, some would fear you, some would hate you, and some would follow you.”
“And which are you?”
Bull shook his head. “I can’t say. I don’t really know. Not yet, anyway.”
“What should I do?”
“As you said, you must be true to yourself. Just know that Green might take your actions, however small, to have deeper meanings. Anything and everything you do could be taken back to Yellow-Eyes.”
“Kalb.” I said the name aloud. “Always things revolve around him.”
Bull nodded. We waited in silence, thinking. Dog sniffed at Bull’s dog. Then the two sat side by side, just like how Bull and I were standing. We stood there, watching the others, realizing at length that many of the others were searching for rocks to play the game with. That made me smile.
“Go?” Bull asked after a lengthy silence, glancing sideways at me, almost hesitantly.
“What was the Emperor’s daughter like?”
I smiled. “Like a laughing sunrise, and she smelled like the handkerchief in the maze. She was my first human friend.”
Bull’s nostrils flared and his eyes narrowed. He shifted his stance nervously. “This is a dangerous game they play with us. You are more involved than you know.”
I could say nothing to that. I had no answers to that.
Later, when we went back inside, I went to Red’s lesson with Bull’s words echoing in my head. Once again, we were paired against Pack Chahar. This time, we fought in pairs, working with each other against two opponents. Killer and I were matched against Drum and the boy with the hound, named Nose.
Unlike the previous week, Drum was a bit reserved when put to fighting me. He flinched away, as if truly scared of me. I used it to my advantage, and we defeated him and his partner again and again. Legs and Tiny didn’t fare quite so well against their two opponents, although Bull’s extra training clearly seemed to have had some impact, because they won at least one match. They had tenacity, if nothing else.
Partway through our lesson, I heard the door open, and I saw Green walk in. He waved us on, signaling us to continue. He said nothing, but he watched, pacing back and forth. However, even when he was at other circles, supposedly watching what they were doing, his eyes always seemed to seek me out. I made a point of ignoring him, concentrating on my opponents instead.
It was a relief when the lesson ended, and we were allowed to go to our rooms and bathe. As we left, I cast a glance over my shoulder, catching Red and Green conversing. They both looked up and stared at me at the same moment. I grinned. I’m not sure why. It was one of those guilty grins, like a boy who has been caught stealing sweets.
They did not smile back.
National Novel Writing Month 2019: The Emperor's Dogs