Things went back to how they had been, to an extent. Many of the boys no longer knew what to do with themselves for their morning meal. It was no longer a fight. Perhaps they still needed to work out some aggression. Dogs were meant to be hunters, and now everything was just handed to us. Maybe that had been part of the purpose behind the feedings, however demeaning they had been.
We wandered the yard after our meals, and I took those opportunities to run around the perimeter of the yard. After a week of idleness, it felt wonderful to stretch our legs. Dog and I ran with abandon, enjoying the exertion. We worked on building our endurance. From time to time, Legs or some of our other pack mates joined us, but they ran because we did, not for the love of it. They ran as if it might help them understand us, and, in doing so, better understand how to become the beast.
Others watched us. Pack Yek had developed something akin to reverence for Dog and I. They watched us with the careful study of a student with a master, or possibly that of a doctor with a patient exhibiting strange symptoms.
We excelled in our classes, defeating Pack Chahar with ease in Red and Blue’s classes. With Drum recovering and still absent, they were rudderless. They were also a lot less cruel. Our five defeated their four resoundingly, but I made sure we did it with grace, as Pack Se had showed us. If we were to make allies of our enemies, it would not be through cruelty. We had to show them that our way was superior.
Red took the events of last week as a learnable moment, offering us his advice for what we should take away from the events. He saved the best of his speech for my first time back. “What happened before was unfortunate, but it was a lesson in many ways. I saw much that was admirable, and some that was not. I saw packs standing up for each other, working together to defeat common foes. That is the way of the army. I applaud you for this loyalty and strength of character.”
“I also saw some disrespecting the Emperor or those he has placed above us. This is never acceptable.” He paused to give me a look, as if I didn’t know he spoke mostly of Drum and I. “There is a chain of command. Everyone must follow orders. Even an Emperor is ultimately responsible to his people. We must all do our part.”
“I have also seen changes come to this place. While you might not always understand our methods, you must all understand that we are honing you to be weapons. When a blacksmith fires and pounds his heated metal, he does not apologize. He does not worry about being too tough on it. He works to shape and make that raw metal into something better, a tool or a sword. He cannot do that without pounding and shaping and sharpening what he makes. That is what we do to you all. We are in the process of making all of you into the finest weapons in the Emperor’s arsenal.”
I wanted to smile at this, but I kept it to myself. He spoke the truth as he knew it, but what they had was a problem not with their methods, but with their teachers. It was like having a wrestler teach a dancer, or a baker teach a woodworker. These were soldiers. They were not dog men like us.
In a couple weeks, I’d surpassed all of these boys in at least one way. I’d naturally been able to do what these teachers could not teach me. They might backpedal and try to explain their harsh methods, but there was something to be said for innate talent and instinct.
Blue had a similar lecture, but his was more about the loyalty to all members of the royal family and the respect we owed our rulers. He seemed more sympathetic with what I had done than Red, but only up to a point. It was nearly unforgiveable in his eyes to attack Green’s authority, and he spared me no measure of disdain for what I’d done.
Still, I was at the top of his class both times in the week. It didn’t matter if we faced Pack Chahar or Pack Do. Something had just clicked with Panj. I was a level beyond, and standing behind me, Panj was unbeatable. Tiny stood taller and looked fiercer than ever. Legs was confident and deadly quick. Killer was a mountain of assuredness. Face was with us, rounding out our group as if he’d always been one of us. The five of us were a force.
Grey was the only instructor to give us no lecture. Instead, he reviewed our clothing situation. He’d seen fit to give everyone in the program standardized uniforms, not just for when we came to his class, but for our time at the Kennel in general. We now had dress uniforms for his classes and any official events that might crop up in the future, and we had everyday uniforms… including shoes.
I felt odd wearing shoes. I hated them. I decided to never wear them, unless I was required to. Sandals, I could somewhat manage, but the soles of my feet had become like rough leather, like the pads of Dog’s feet. I could walk on just about anything, except for glass or thorns, and I’d be fine. Still, I made an effort and wore the strange things to Grey’s classes at least. The rest of the time, I ran free and barefoot, connected to the ground wherever I went.
The last class of the week was Red’s class with Pack Se. Bull had avoided me for the week, but he had been around. I’d seen him when we washed up or when we played stones, but we hadn’t spoken since my return. I’d seen him in the yard, but he never came up to me. He just watched, obviously still trying to decide what he thought of me or coming up with something to say to me. It was fine. He would speak his mind in time. That was the sort of person he was.
That’s how it would have gone, until Red forced the issue.
I faced off against Bull in the center ring, with everyone gathered around. It brought to mind the first time I’d been in this ring, facing Bull this time instead of Drum.
“Engage each other.” Red instructed, seeing as how Bull and I just stared at each other in a battle of gazes rather than fists and feet.
“We are.” Bull replied, folding his arms over his broad chest. He regarded me as if I might burst into a beast at any moment. Did he still see something of his friend in my features?
“Yeah.” I said, crossing my arms over my considerably smaller chest. I looked at him as if he were my friend, and I was confused as to why he looked at me thus. It wasn’t a stretch. I understood his caution, but not his complete refusal to speak with me. Was he worried I would seem rational and sensible now?
“Then fight now, or I’ll start shooting you both with real arrows.” Red growled.
Bull obliged, walking forward to lock arms for a grapple. Like he’d trained me in the rooms during our spare time, we fought. Except, he either held back, or I’d gained something.
He pushed, and I held him back. He pulled, and I resisted. He tried to throw me twice, but I always kept my feet. He hooked a leg behind my ankle, but I saw it coming. Eyes on his, I could see into him. I knew what he would do.
He disengaged abruptly. “I can’t fight him.”
“What do you mean? Those are your orders, Bull. Engage!” Red demanded.
Bull shook his head. “I can’t.”
Red climbed up onto the ring and put himself between us. He poked Bull in the chest with a finger and stabbed another one in the air in my direction. “You can fight him, and you will!”
Bull shook his head again. “He knows me too well. He reads my every move, and I can’t see what he’ll do. It’s like he’s in my head. I don’t know how, but he’s doing it.”
Red turned to me. I saw a flash of anger cross his eyes, and I knew what he would do. He whirled back toward Bull, slapping him full across the face. It was such a sudden and surprising move that it dropped Bull to the ground. He looked up at our instructor in shock, hand going to his stinging face.
“Get up, Bull. Fight. Use your anger. Anger feeds the transformation.”
Bull began to stand, only to get slapped down once more. This time, anger registered across his face, not shock. His bulldog growled from the ground, snapping at Red’s ankles, but he could not reach, and he was being held back from jumping up onto the ring. When Bull stood for a third time, he blocked the incoming slap and barked at Red.
Red smiled. “Good. Now go fight your opponent.”
Bull’s eyes flashed, but he still had a hint of hesitation as he charged me. I felt my muscles tense in anticipation. There was a hint of the beast in me as I dodged aside and struck him on the side. He grunted but kept coming. I struck again, harder. Still he came after me, arms like tangling spider webs!
What he lacked in speed, he made up in durability. Tenacious as his dog, he kept trying to close on me. I struck again and again, wearing him down, but he wore me down as well. We grappled, fighting with elbows, knees, and fists. When I finally broke free, his eyes were swollen. My bottom lip was split, my jaw ached, and one of my elbows throbbed. Both of us were panting and bleeding.
He grinned through his swollen eyes and threw his head back. He howled. Suddenly, all of the dogs in the room began to howl, led by Bull’s thick-necked dog. I felt something then, a tickle on the back of my neck. It was the infectious feeling of a pack, of a greater pack than I’d known.
Dog let out a long keening howl, the way of his breed. I didn’t even know that I was doing it with him until we all stopped, throats raw. They were all staring at me, both packs and our instructor.
Red took in the sight of us all, knowing he was on to something, but not quite sure how to bottle it all up and bring it back on demand. He looked very pleased with himself. He congratulated the two of us on our efforts and set about trying to repeat his success with other pairs of fighters, which he spread about the room.
With Red’s attention elsewhere, Bull nodded to me, lowering his head. His mouth formed a silent bark. I had not lost him after all. In fact, I’d brought him in even closer. Pack Se was all but mine.
Did Red even realize that he was setting me up as the leader of all the packs? Would he care?
National Novel Writing Month 2019: The Emperor's Dogs