The guards outside the north gates relayed my message to the instructors, who came at once.
“Let him out.” Green ordered. “Only him. His dog stays on that side of the gate.”
I frowned at that. Did they really think I would attack them? What would I gain from that? Was that how far they trusted me now? Only I was permitted out into the gallery. The four instructors surrounded me with a dozen guards ringing us in.
I glanced around, but saw no sign of the Emperor or of Kalb.
“What have you all decided?” Green inquired. A worried look flashed over his features before he clamped down on it. The look vanished, and once again he was all business.
I regarded the four nearly-identical faces. They were all grave as I began to explain what we had decided, and they grew more severe as I finished. “I will execute Drum personally. Then, we will separate Tiny and Drum’s dog, Bear, so they have a chance to bond. We don’t want to lose Tiny.”
“How does he know about that?” Red hissed at Green.
“Sardar told you?” Green looked incredulous.
“We all know.” I assured them.
“There were mistakes at the beginning, Go.” Grey offered apologetically. “We were learning. It only happened once, and we have changed the way we do things since then.”
“Maybe it was a mistake, but there will be more changes.” I smiled secretively.
“Oh?” Green’s eyes narrowed.
“I will explain what’s going to happen when the Emperor and his advisor are present.”
“You will explain…” Red scoffed. “You will explain nothing to the Emperor! You are here as a servant of the Emperor! You will do his bidding.”
I shrugged. “That may be true, but he will hear my demands, or we will no longer participate. None of us will.”
“We?” Blue asked. A look dawned on his face, and I think he got it far before the others. He must have realized that we were united.
Red snorted a laugh. “You mean you and your new little crew? Pack Panj is a small piece of this place. How dare you presume to speak for them all.”
I shook my head. “Panj is no more, Red. We are Sefr.”
“Sefr? There is no Pack Sefr.” Red replied.
“We are all Sefr now. All or nothing.” I repeated.
Blue put a restraining hand on Red’s forearm when he looked as if he might say more. “Red... Stop.”
“What do you mean stop? How dare this upstart tell us what to do? We are the leaders of this place.” Red insisted.
“Not anymore.” I said defiantly. I was feeling bold, and I must admit there was a fair chance a smirk stole across my face.
Red’s face flushed and he made as if to hit me, but there was a bark from across the gallery, in the second floor box. Red turned to find a pair of yellow eyes glaring down on him from across the sand. The four instructors froze.
“Things are going to change.” Green muttered.
Kalb, satisfied that the aggression had ended, turned on his heels and marched off from the gallery. Only minutes later, he emerged from the south gates with the Emperor at his side. This time, there were no royal guards with them.
The Emperor strode purposefully across the sand, hand on his sword hilt. He spoke in low tones to Kalb as he went, low enough that even I could not hear. Clearly, he was a man used to our abilities and limitations. It raised his worth in my esteem, but I still could not forgive him for putting me here, for separating me from Nokomi, even if she was his daughter.
My four instructors lowered their heads and bowed, Red deepest of all, as the Emperor took his place beside us. I mirrored their bows. Kalb and Teeth waited beside Emperor Baraz, waiting for him to speak first.
“You have come to a consensus? A decision has been made?” The Emperor asked of me. He was straight to the point, not one to waste time.
“The packs have come together as one to support my decision.” I let the implications of that settle in.
“And?” The Emperor asked.
“I will execute Drum.” I lifted my chin and dared him to deny me.
“You would do this yourself?” The Emperor looked surprised at this.
He gave me a hard look, as if wondering if I could do this thing, or maybe wondering how it would change me to do so. “And if I tell you that he is too valuable to lose?”
“I would tell you that you are mistaken. Then I would kill him anyway at some point in the near future.”
The Emperor looked to his advisor and frowned. “Quite a bloodthirsty little boy we have here, is it not?”
Kalb’s eyebrow rose and his mouth twitched into a smile beneath his beard. “It appears so.”
“It is what you made me.” I explained.
The Emperor turned his gaze to the four instructors then. “Do you hear him? He says I, through you and this place, have made a murderer of him.”
“Emperor…” Green began.
“Silence!” The Emperor growled. “I will not hear your half-hearted explanations. I will not hear excuses. I know of the many mistakes that have occurred in this place. I know that we need to make changes.”
He took a deep breath then continued, “I need men that can make hard choices, and I need loyalty. What I do not need is murderers made from alley brats.”
“It is loyalty that compels this murder, Emperor, loyalty to my pack.” I explained.
“And which pack is that?” Kalb wondered.
I grinned toothily. “Pack Sefr. We are all, or we are nothing.”
Kalb whispered something to the Emperor, and the Emperor’s eyes swept back my way. He said nothing for a long moment, and then spoke to Kalb instead. “These boys have value, but only if they turn out as I need them. I may need them to kill without hesitation, but only when directed, and only in the service of this kingdom. I need someone here that I can trust to make sure these boys are trained as I need.”
“You are asking me?” Kalb looked from the Emperor back to me, appraisingly.
“You will begin dividing your attention between here and the capital. At least a week a month will have to be spent here, more at first.”
“Emperor,” Kalb looked alarmed, “we are about business of the highest importance in the capital. My absence will mean…”
“I will make do without you, Kalb. It is not forever, and I know I can count on you being there when it is most important.”
I recalled something of the conversation I’d had with Kalb when I’d been under arrest. When would the next attempt on the Emperor’s life come? Would we be ready by then? Would thwarting the next assassination be part of what we would be called to do?
Kalb shook his head but looked resigned to do as told. Teeth settled onto the sand beside him, as if already getting comfortable with the place.
“There is more, Emperor.” I announced. I wasn’t sure how much more I could push my luck, but this was the time, if ever. Who could say when he would next visit. It might be months, even years before I saw his face again.
“I’m not sure I want to hear more from you.” The Emperor declared. I waited. We all did. Finally, the Emperor sighed and waved his hand. “Say your piece, then.”
I took a breath and then launched into my plan, “This place has been segregated into groups that caused divisions and strife among us. We have all joined into a new pack, a single pack to serve you. As a united pack, we must demand that the instruction here changes. We need to adjust instruction to create cooperation and growth, not vicious competition. Each of us should be able to stand on our own when needed, but it is as a collective group that we are strongest. That is how we should be used.”
“This one thinks to explain strategy to me.” The Emperor laughed.
“And yet he is not entirely wrong.” Kalb pulled at his beard.
“This one has shown a strength of leadership. The others look up to him.” Red reluctantly admitted.
“I will set Kalb to reorganizing this place. As I understand, you are the most advanced student here, in terms of your special abilities. I will expect you to work along with him and these four instructors to redesign the instruction to fit my needs.”
“Yes, Emperor.” I sketched a hasty bow.
“Now, he’s obedient.” The Emperor laughed.
“But there is another matter, that of Drum’s dog.” Kalb said soberly. “What will become of the beast with his master dead?”
“We will give him the chance to bond to Tiny. We hope they will bond and save both dog and boy.” I announced.
“Can that work?” The Emperor asked.
“It is exceedingly rare, but there are precedents.” Kalb answered, giving me a look that told me he knew about Sardar, and how could he not?
The Emperor nodded. “Let us pray it works, so we do not lose two boys and two dogs from this incident. That would be a tragic waste. Give them whatever it needs to make it happen. Make it a priority.”
“Then it is all decided?” Green asked, almost meekly.
The Emperor nodded. “Let it be done this evening. Prepare the gallery for an execution. Let the blood stain the sands of this place as a reminder of what has happened. He is one of ours, and he will be buried on the premises. He does not die with honor, but we must respect what it costs to make this place better.”
“Emperor!” The four instructors said almost simultaneously. They broke away, leaving to see to his will.
That left only Kalb, his dog, the Emperor, and myself. The Emperor regarded me warily. “I still remember you from that first day…”
“In the alley.” I finished.
He smiled at the memory. “You had bravely killed that desert cat. That beast was easily the size of you and your dog put together.”
I touched the scar across my forehead, remembering. “It was a good fight.”
“You were so defiant, even then. You have steel within you, Go.”
“And fire.” I replied softly.
The Emperor reached over and touched my forehead. It was hard not to flinch away from his touch, but I held very still. Dog tensed on the other side of the gate, but there was no harm in the touch. The Emperor’s eyes closed for a moment, and a smile crossed his face. I felt a tingle through my scalp as his calloused hand rested on my forehead.
“And fire.” The Emperor agreed.
Kalb swallowed audibly and looked away when the Emperor glanced over at him. Had he not told his master of my connection to Nokomi? Still, the Emperor did not seem displeased.
“I hope that this thing tonight does not haunt you too badly, Go. You cannot kill a man and not bear the weight of it. It is not something done lightly, but you have already said you would do it, so I will not relieve you of this duty. This is just one of the costs of leadership.”
“I will do my best to bear it.” I bowed my head.
“See that you do.”
The Emperor and Kalb left then, leaving me standing there. Teeth smiled at me, a dog’s smile. He came over and let me rub between his ears, and then he left, following the sandy footprints left by his master and his master’s master.
I watched them leave, and then went back to the gates, where the guards allowed me back into the north wing. Dog greeted me happily. He’d been anxious behind the gates, but his worries had been unfounded.
I felt relieved. Everything I’d asked for had been given to me. Except, I’d have to kill Drum in just a short while. I’d asked for it. I’d demanded it. Now I had to kill for the first time.
I wasn’t sure I was built for murder, even if it was justified. But I’d have to if I wanted to get back to Nokomi.
National Novel Writing Month 2019: The Emperor's Dogs