Our week of captivity was both horribly dull and extremely relaxing. Dog and I used it to heal and think. The cage had been removed, now that I had returned to my human form, but the room was still quite small, only a few paces on a side, with nothing but two narrow slits in the stone walls for light and fresh air. Had I not been used to living in small places, I would have found the whole room quite claustrophobic.
We even played a bit of stones, or I did, at least. Lacking stones, I chipped away at some chicken bones Dog had crunched up with his teeth to make something approximating the four stones I’d need to play with. He enjoyed the bones. The trick was to keep them away from him once I’d filed them down into the right shapes. With no one else to play with, I even came up with several new rules variations.
Mostly, though, I rested, spending time alone and lazing about with Dog. It was something we’d scarcely been able to do since coming to this place. Solitary creatures, except in the company of each other, we were not used to being around so many people. We were used to the quiet of each other’s company – nothing more. So, forced though it was, this was a welcome return to the roots of our life and relationship.
All the more, it reinforced why we were here. We were here to reunite with the lost member of our pack, Nokomi. Dog and I needed to heal, get stronger, and play by the rules here until we could be with Nokomi once more. Almost anything was worth enduring for that. Almost.
So we slept, ate, tended our wounds, and healed. I’m not sure how it was with regular people, those without the Old Blood running in their veins, but Dog and I were fast healers. Maybe the bit of New Blood we’d shared with Nokomi made our blood even stronger. Skin and muscle knitted, leaving only scars where blades, claws, and crossbows had scarred us. Blackened bruises faded to ugly yellow in just days. By the end of the week, scars aside, the two of us looked unscathed, as if we’d not just fought a battle against a whole pack and a dozen guards.
We heard a clank and the door swung open on day eight, an exact week since we’d been thrown in this cage. Tomorrow, it’d be back to day one and Red’s lessons. Would anyone in Chahar dare face off against us? I smiled at that and thanked my guards cordially as they opened the door. They gave me space, standing like taut bowstrings, ready to spring if needed. I gave them no cause.
Exiting my cell for the first time in the week, I made sure to take note of its location. Even flanked by four soldiers, Dog and I were able to puzzle out that this room was in the south wing, toward the eastern side. Much like the west wing had several rooms and halls, the southern wing also had its own halls and chambers, in addition to the towers and the larger part of the south wing that we’d not been permitted to go through. I surmised that the cell I’d been in was not far from the first room I’d been in when we’d first arrived. The smells were similar, now that I’d grown used to them.
We were ushered down the hall and taken out into the tunnel that led to the south gate, which opened for us. How odd it was to be going through this tunnel this way. Normally, it was the teachers and guards who came through this way. Just a week ago, Green had led his men out this very gate to stop me. Now, we returned, defeated but not beaten. In fact, we might have been more determined than ever.
I sniffed the air and shaded my eyes from the sun as we entered the gallery. It felt like a dream, that day a week ago. Had all of that really happened? Had we fought and defeated so many of Chahar’s boys and dogs? Had we really challenged Green and his auburn guards? The beast had been hard to hold back, almost without reason. I’d need to learn to restrain it.
My leg throbbed where I’d been shot by the crossbow as we crossed the sand. Fresh footprints had covered the spots where I’d bled, but I could still smell it. I could smell where my blood had soaked into these sands. This sand, this place, they were a part of me now.
I looked then to the statues of the Emperor and his family. All four of them were pristine, cleaned of even bird spatters. I smiled at that and paused to regard Nokomi’s statue. A careful clearing of a throat urged me forward once more. They were hesitant to bother me, but it was fine. I’d seen all I needed to.
Boys were waiting for me just inside the north gates. They must have heard the south gates open, and they were waiting for me. I could smell them before the doors opened. I knew their scents, and I could smell the shifting emotions upon them. I wanted to see their eyes, not just smell their presences. That would be the truest showing of their thoughts on me. There were things they could not hide in their eyes.
When the doors swung open, Tiny threw himself at me. He wrapped me up with a stiff embrace, laughing. Dog danced at my side happily, standing up to get in on the affection. The guards shooed Tiny away, nudging at him a bit roughly, but he backed away, grinning as L.D. harried their ankles, all bark and terror in a small package.
Legs, Face, and Killer waited just inside the gates. Others were visible down the halls, but they kept to their packs as I was escorted back to Panj’s room. With me safely returned to my room, the guards vanished, closing the gates behind them.
Eight sets of eyes stared at me as I sat down at, of all things, a table. It was a kneeling table, in the fashion that had become common. I’d eaten beside one once with Adish and Barid. People knelt or sat on cushions with their legs folded around a low table. It was how people took their meals, and it was how we were apparently taking our morning meal.
Four boys and four dogs all regarded Dog and me with expressions ranging between apprehension and admiration. They were worried for me and because of me, but they were also proud of what I had done. I could smell it on them.
“You’re back!” Tiny declared emphatically, not that he hadn’t already greeted me.
“Yes, and it seems that things have changed.” I rapped my knuckles resoundingly upon the table.
They pushed the basket my way. It was almost as nicely provisioned as a weekday meal. I snagged a chunk of cheese, a handful of olives, and some boiled quail eggs from the basket. Dog inhaled two of the eggs while I chewed the savory, salty olives. It was a pleasant change from the boiled chicken and plain bread I’d been given in my cell, with nothing but water to wash it down.
All the while, they stared at me, examining me, looking for some signs of the beast I’d been. “Say something.” I begged. Their stares were tiresome.
“We just… well… we just thought they were going to kill you that night.” Legs finally answered after a long moment of them looking at each other, searching for words.
“I’d not have been surprised if they had. I gave them reasons.” I certainly had. I chewed an egg quickly and sighed. “I want to thank you all for trying to help me. It was my fight, and you didn’t have to involve yourselves.”
“We are a pack, Go. It’s what we do.” Killer said simply.
“Besides, we all hate Chahar.” Legs declared, then looking embarrassed upon suddenly remembering that Face was among us.
I felt a pang. Dog and I shared a look. We were a pack, he and I. These guys were my pack of convenience, but it was a manufactured pack. It was not natural, as what Dog and I had with Nokomi. Still, they’d been willing to risk their lives for me. I needed to acknowledge that and respect it.
I met their gazes. “I know, but when someone does something as foolish as I did, I don’t want to think you’re all throwing your lives away for the sake of that bond, not if I don’t deserve it.”
“Why would you not deserve it? You stood up to Chahar. You beat that fool bloody and tore apart half of their pack all on your own!” From the pride in Tiny’s eyes, the way his little body swelled twice its size with admiration, it was hard to not love these guys.
“What I did was wrong. Not the Chahar part. Drum deserved it, along with any that helped him.” I grinned. “But the part with the guards was wrong. I attacked a superior foe with no hope of victory. I might have killed one or two, but for what? My attack on Chahar was justified. With the guards, it was just bloodlust. It was stupid of me. So, if you want to replace me as head of this pack, I would accept that. I don’t need to lead, if I’m leading you into danger without good reasons. I would remain amongst you though, if I could.”
“No.” Legs answered. “Just, no.”
“No.” Tiny agreed, nodding and crossing his arms.
“You are our leader.” Killer insisted. “You have been since the first day. That will not change just because you bit off more than you can chew.”
“Besides, look what has come of it? We get fed like people now. We even have furniture…” Tiny grinned.
“I think Grey had something to do with that.” Face suggested, indicating the napkins, which were of grey cloth.
I looked at him. His wrinkly pup sprawled next to him, regarding me with calm eyes. Both still wore signs of the bruises and beatings Chahar had given them. My own wounds had healed faster than theirs. They needed our pack, these two.
“If I am to be your leader still, then I want to welcome Face to our pack truly. It is their loss, and our gain. Is there any here that won’t have him?”
They all looked at me as if I were crazy. “Good. Welcome to Pack Panj, Face. We will not let you down.” I tried to sound official, but it just felt foolish.
Nevertheless, he nodded seriously. He stood, bowed at the waist, and barked. “I will not let you down either, brothers.”
He settled himself back down on a cushion, and we all felt a bit silly. We broke out in a good-natured laugh. When it ended, I think a few of us had to wipe tears from our eyes. Face was a natural fit to our group. We were lucky to have him.
“Now, if only we could get a few more on our side. We’d be as big as Yek.” Tiny said thoughtfully, breaking the silence.
“Yeah? Do you have eyes on our next recruit?” I asked, jokingly.
“Fire.” Killer answered immediately. Apparently, they’d given this some thought.
“You’re serious.” I replied.
“Serious as murder.” He grinned. Killer was never long on words.
“What happens if we convert all of them to Panjies?” The four of us frowned at Tiny’s word choice. “Panjites? Panjerines?” He tried a few more words. None of them worked. We all burst out laughing once more.
“When the whole army is Panj, we will worry about a proper name.” I replied when I got my breath back. “Until then, welcome to Panj, Face!”
“And welcome back, Go!” Legs shouted.
“And then, they were five.” Killer said with a satisfied smile. His dog barked agreement, which got the other dogs all riled up.
What followed were laughs, food, and more time together. It felt like a pack in all but the very deepest ways. I’d misjudged these boys. They were solid allies. They, at least, would not turn me aside.
I still didn’t know what the other packs thought of me. I worried about Bull and Pack Se. We needed them, but I couldn’t make them trust me just because I wanted them to. I’d have to prove myself in the next few weeks, months, or however long it took.
And there was what Kalb had said, about them wanting what I had: the ability to turn myself into a beast. I could see it in their eyes, even in my pack mates. They wanted to ask, but couldn’t come out and ask just yet. They would wait for me to share my secret, as if it was something I could just explain away and teach, like a game of stones.
I doubted it was.
National Novel Writing Month 2019: The Emperor's Dogs