For the rest of the week, Green shadowed my lessons. What he learned, I could not tell. He seemed most interested in my lessons with Red and Blue. He was only briefly apparent during my lesson with Grey, but he could have been watching longer. I surmised that his interests were more in my martial skills and interactions with other packs, rather than my etiquette.
Green met with each teacher after our lessons for a debriefing. He was even visible once on the walls when we were in the yard, watching the whole lot of us go about our business after eating our morning meals. I doubt he learned much there, as most of us stood around, urinated on bushes, or hunted for stones.
Hunting for the perfect stones had become something of a pastime for many of the boys. At least eight boys now had their own set of four rocks, all marked and decorated for uniqueness. Small games or practice occurred almost nightly now, in preparation for the weekend tournaments. It was certainly taking off.
Twice during the week, Green also toured our north wing. He went room to room, inspecting our living conditions and the ways in which we interacted. He had conversations with two of the boys who were practicing the stone game in an empty room, asking about the rules and the game’s origins. All things seemed to point back to me, but he did not speak to me directly, not even when he found us practicing holds and throws under Bull’s tutelage. He silently watched us practice for the better part of our lesson and then vanished just as silently.
If much seemed to stay the same, in spite of Green’s mysterious presence, other changes were upon us. There was a flurry of activity on the first morning of Panj’s second weekend there. We were released into the gallery for our morning meal, only to find four statues, where before there had only been one. Larger-than-life renditions of the Empress and their two daughters now flanked the Emperor, much like in the portrait we saw each time we went to Blue’s class.
We all stopped and stared, all twenty-some of us. For some of us, like Pack Yek especially, they’d walked into this gallery and looked at one statue for over a year. Then, without warning, there were four. It would take some getting used to.
The Emperor had been rendered as a powerful man with a commanding expression. His hand resting on the hilt of a curved sword belted at his hip. He wore a conical head wrap, much like when I’d met him. They’d done a good job creating his hard expression. He seemed like an imposing man.
The Empress was only up to his shoulder, smaller than him by a head or more. Her hair was swept back into a scarf, and jewels of cut glass had been set into web-like pattern across her hair, so they twinkled even in the morning light. She was pretty, with an open expression to her face and a kindly set to her cheekbones and jawline.
The two daughters were of different sizes, each slightly smaller than their mother. I’d never seen the older sister before, but I assumed it was a faithful recreation, as the Emperor’s and Nokomi’s statues seemed very accurate. The sister had a narrower face than Nokomi, with eyes and a face shape the looked intelligent and thoughtful. She was half a handspan taller than her younger sister, and slimmer of build.
While the other three statues were masterful recreations of their subjects, it was Nokomi’s statue that captured my real attention. It was breathtaking. I felt my forehead burn. Dog emitted a low keening howl beside me, as if he, too, felt the burn in my scalp. I blinked away tears, the fire of my scalp stinging my eyes.
“Nokomi.” I whispered.
There were no explanations to the new additions to our gallery. There was no ceremony to declare their purpose. There were only the four statues and silence. Then there were the guards dumping our food onto the sand, food that no one seemed to have no immediate interest in, which was likely a first.
Dog and I went forward to the statue of our friend, ignoring the other three. Dog sniffed at it, while I placed hands upon it. It was not her, but it was the closest thing we had to her. At some point, I separated from the statue and knelt beside Dog. We waited for the burning in my scalp and our souls to subside.
I was unaware of what others thought of my behavior until I looked up. Everyone was still frozen, watching us. I cast a look around at my fellows. There was no judgement there for the most part, only surprise and confusion. They had no knowledge of my past, none of them except for Bull, and he had a look of concern in his eyes, which kept shifting to the southern side of the gallery. I didn’t need to look over my shoulder to know who was there watching me, studying my reaction.
Shaking my head, I walked away from the statue, forsaking food. Killer grabbed my arm, nodding toward the piles of food that people were now starting toward.
“Eat, if you want. I will have none of it. I will eat like a man, or not at all.”
Killer looked torn between his stomach and his loyalty. He was a creature of habit and routine, as were we all. Legs sighed, and Tiny grumbled, but they followed me back into our wing of the building. Bull and his pack hesitated, many of them already having food in hand. Pack Se followed Panj back into our rooms.
Seeing this, Pack Yek also joined us, leaving only Chahar and Do to fight over the pile of food. Red from Pack Do joined us in our protest, eliciting shouts from Scar, his pack leader. A few moments later, Face also joined us, the boy with the wrinkly dog from Pack Chahar. Drum’s curses and screams made it clear that it was not a move that he approved of.
The members of Pack Yek filed in past our door, each stopping to nod to our group. They were with us, surprisingly. They’d never made any show of solidarity about anything before. They kept to themselves to eat, bathe, and play. They were their own entity, and yet I had their support.
Drum made sure to strut back in after he’d eaten his fill, burping and covered in food stains. “Quite a feast out there today, boys.” He eyed the six of us, Face, Red, and Pack Panj. Packs Yek and Se had gone back to their own rooms.
“If you like being fed like a beast.” Tiny replied snarkily. His little dog snarled at Drum and his oversized dog.
Drum picked at his teeth and laughed. “Don’t think I could eat another bite.”
“Go play in the yard.” Killer said, waving them off.
“Oh, didn’t you know? They didn’t open the yard today. Thanks for that!” Drum shouted.
We all looked at each other in alarm. That had never happened before. No matter how much we ate or how much we’d left before, not that it had ever been much left behind, they had always opened the east gate for us to run in the yard. It was part of the deal, weekend or not.
“I guess that’s what happens when half of you lose your minds, follow this new guy, and scorn our masters’ good will.” Drum shook his head at the lot of us. “Maybe you’ll all be a little smarter tomorrow and let this fool go hungry by himself.”
Killer stood up, ready to fight. Tiny and Legs were up beside him in an instant. I pulled them back down. “It’s not worth it. Let him do it. We’ll see how well that goes.”
Drum laughed again and strolled off, leaning backward to let his full belly show all the more. He let his eyes rest for a long moment on Face, the traitor of his group, and then left. The rest of Chahar followed their leader back to their room.
“You can stay with us, if you want.” I offered. There was the unspoken offer of membership, something that would come with time, if he wanted it.
Face looked me in the eyes and shook his head. “I don’t know. I don’t like my pack, but it is my pack. It’s been my home for months. We don’t change packs.”
“We don’t skip meals and play games together, either.”
“There is that. Still, I should go deal with them. It won’t be easy.”
“They don’t deserve your loyalty.” Killer commented.
“Maybe not, but I will offer it once more. If they turn me aside, I will be back. It’s not like I’ll have any other options.” He grinned, but it was the expression of a boy that expected trouble and likely pain for his defiance.
“Good luck.” We all wished him. He nodded and departed.
Bull walked into our room next, wearing a serious look. He crossed his arms and regarded me like a disappointed parent might a disobedient child. “You’ve made your next move.”
“It was too early.”
“Was it? Is it ever too early to demand to be treated like a person?”
“You know that’s not what I mean.”
“Tell me, if were soldiers in the Emperor’s army, would they feed us scraps thrown in the dirt?”
Bull smiled derisively. “Go, it’s not that easy. We are a special case. There is no army like us. Never has a group of Old Blood been incorporated in the forces of the New Blood. We are remnants of an old people. Their ways are not ours, and now they seek to use our gifts to their advantage.”
“I know nothing of that. I just want to be fed food that does not feel and look like garbage thrown aside for a creature. I am a man. I wish to eat like one.”
Just then, someone came running in, shouting, “Chahar ruined all the leftover food! They smashed it into the dirt and covered it in filth!”
Apparently, someone had been hungry enough to check to see what had become of the leftovers. Chahar wasn’t going to let anyone change their minds. If we’d skipped out on food when it was first offered, we didn’t deserve any of it. Chahar had ruined any chance to go back for it later. There would be no eating until the baskets arrived this evening. More shouting erupted in the hallways because of this, arguing broke out, and fighting up and down the halls.
I didn’t feel like a fight just then. It wouldn’t amount to much more than the beatings we gave each other in our classes, and the same feuds would just crop up again later.
I walked off. Dog trailed behind me. I walked with a purpose. I don’t know why. I didn’t want to see the ruined and soiled food, but there was nowhere else to go to be alone with my thoughts, so I went to the gallery.
Immediately upon walking out into the gallery, my eyes went to the statues. They dominated the plain room, with nothing but walls, pillars, and sand to look at otherwise, but my eyes went to Nokomi’s statue almost instinctively anyway. What I saw left me dismayed.
Food had been smeared across Nokomi’s face. Tomato or some other red fruit had been smeared across her fine features. Even worse, urine stains streaked down her statue, discoloring it from the knees down in several places. From where I stood, with nostrils flared, I recognized one scent immediately as Drum’s, but apparently several dogs and other boys, likely the whole of Pack Chahar had relieved themselves upon her statue.
The smell of dung wafted my way as well. The food had been gathered into a pile in the sand and feces were piled upon the mound. The whole gallery smelled of waste and disrespect, and my forehead burned horribly.
These acts would not go unpunished.
National Novel Writing Month 2019: The Emperor's Dogs