Four days passed with surprising swiftness and also with agonizing slowness.
I used every spare moment to memorize the layout of the palace, which four days was not nearly enough time to do. Kalb’s signet ring allowed me access to most areas in the main palace, but there were so many outbuildings, small gardens, and walled-off areas that I just could not memorize them all so swiftly. Only time would fully allow me to acclimate myself to this new place. For now, I had to settle with knowing the major landmarks and areas, while learning the smaller details as I went.
Except, would I even have the time I needed? Kalb required me to know the ins and outs of the entire palace complex if I was to be able to sneak about and carry out his will. On the third day, he showed up at my small home in the middle of the night and made me draw the entire palace in accurate scale, at least what I could remember of it, from memory.
He did not let on if he was impressed or unimpressed by what I’d managed to learn thus far, although he smiled briefly at the fact that I’d found and labeled no less than twelve places to take a meal. What could I say? My nose and stomach drove me, and it was the memories of certain smells, sounds, and tastes that helped me remember what I knew so accurately. Each thing I associated with a sense became more concrete in my mind.
I knew that there was a specific type of jasmine incense used by one of the advisors in the western hallway. I knew which guard stations served the best food and the strongest liquor, by both taste and smell. There was a lovely assistant to the head scribe that always smelled like him, as well as sandalwood candles. One of the gardens had flowering lemon trees. I knew all these things and more, because our senses drove us.
Just before midday on the fourth day, Halina reappeared, once more alone at my door. I recognized her heartbeat, not her scent. This time, she smelled of almonds and cream. Her skin was particularly savory-smelling and supple-looking in the morning light.
“Do you like it?” She asked, and her eyes twinkled as my nose twitched at her new scent.
“It is pleasant.” I offered neutrally, while Dog sneezed beside me, his tail wagging happily. “What of Nokomi? Where is she?”
“Follow me.” That was all she said, but she sounded disappointed.
Dutifully, I followed with Dog at my side as she led into another walled section of the palace grounds that I’d not yet had a chance to explore. We walked to the north side of the royal residence, where we found another walled-in area that was nearly the side of the courtyard that the officials and folk of the palace enjoyed. This one was more exclusive, meant only for the royal family and those they entertained.
This private area was mostly dominated by a lake that was clearly man-made - its edges were so straight and even, and its depth was so uniform. A large pavilion sat on the southern shore, within eyesight of the two northern towers of the royal residence, as well as the tall turret atop the domes. There were two small islets in the lake, each not much bigger than the footprint of my modest little home. Each held a flowering tree, a few spindly shrubs, and a collection of water birds that spooked when Dog barked at them from the shore.
I stopped and stared, dumbfounded by the expanse of water that stood before me. Living in the alleys as a child, I’d never seen much more than a puddle after a rainstorm or a public fountain for drawing water. At the Kennel, I remember marveling over a bathing room that held a pool of water barely a fraction the size of this lake. Even in my travels as a soldier, I’d never beheld more than a watering hole in the desert or a narrow riverbed, more often running with mud than clear water. Yet here was a mass of water that was simply staggering to me.
Halina smiled to watch me stare. “Your mouth is hanging open. Have you never seen a lake before?”
I glanced at her, shaking my head before turning back to the lake. I knelt at its edge and put my hand into it. Dog sniffed at the water beside me and lapped at the warm water.
“Dogs will drink anything.” Halina remarked without judgement.
“Some people, too.” I slurped a handful of water just to get a rise out of her. My stomach was quite sturdy, and I had no fear of the water making me sick.
Halina winced at my choice of refreshment and nodded toward the pavilion on the edge of the lake. “Nokomi is waiting, with tea. It tastes much better than pond water.”
“Lead on.” I suggested, standing once more. Water was interesting, but Nokomi was much more interesting.
My eyes went to the pavilion, where I could make out Nokomi reclining on a bench beside a table filled with dishes. Lila stood beside her, waiting patiently for Halina to return with me. The sound of them talking filtered across the water to my ears, but I could not make out what they said, at least not until we got closer.
Lila noticed our approach first, although I believe that Nokomi felt us arrive before she indicated that she knew we were here. Just as I felt my forehead flush, I knew that she would know of my presence without having to see or hear us. Dog whined excitedly, feeling her nearby.
Now that we were all well aware of each other, I saw Nokomi stand and look our way. She waited there patiently, allowing us to approach this time. I’ll admit that I was a little disappointed that she didn’t rush over to throw a second embrace our way, but I understood it. She had a level of decorum to maintain. I was a soldier, and she was the princess.
“Princess Nokomi.” I sketched a bow upon arrival, ascending the three steps quickly to be near her.
“Captain Goren.” Nokomi was decidedly cool, but beautiful regardless.
I kept trying to meet Nokomi’s gaze, but her eyes kept slipping away. I felt a pang, but tried not to let it show. I cast a look Halina’s way, but her face was a careful mask, though I knew she was observing me.
At least Nokomi greeted Dog enthusiastically when he crossed the distance between us. He enjoyed the attention, startling the timid Lila as he barked excitedly and set his tail to smacking the poor handmaiden on the legs. Lila let out a little shriek and backed away, falling onto a cushioned lounge. I smiled, but took Nokomi’s cue to not be too forward, and decided to take a look around instead.
The pavilion was about fifteen paces on a side and perfectly square. About half of it was built over the water, with pilings sinking down into the clear water toward piles of white stones on the bottom of the lake, which was about half again as deep as I was tall. The water was clear and pleasant-looking, with fish swimming around placidly.
A waist-high railing ran around the whole pavilion, except where the stairs on the southern side allowed entrance to the covered area. Each of the balusters that connected the floor to the rail had been carved to look like different water birds or fish. Every piece of wood gleamed with the oils that had been worked into the grains of the wood, preserving it from the weather and sun. The structure was well-made, with careful joints and clean lines. Even the rafters above me were masterfully joined and kept clean of bird nests.
“Do you like it?” Halina asked. “The birds, the fish, the calm water… It is very calming.”
I looked at her, watching Nokomi watching us out of the corner of her eyes. Was she doing all the talking on purpose? Was this what it would mean to be close to Nokomi? Would we forever be talking through someone, rather than to each other?
“It is a wonder, this place. I have never seen so much water.” I moved to railing at the edge of the pavilion, past the sitting area and the food and drink assembled on the table.
Dog scampered over and stuck his face between the balusters. He barked at the fish he saw in the water, that or his reflection upon the glassy water. Dog and I stood there for a long moment, saying nothing.
“It is one of my favorite places in this whole cage we call a home.” Nokomi said with no small measure of sadness in her voice as she took a place a few paces away along the railing on our right.
“It was a wonder that I was allowed in the palace the other day to greet you.”
“Her mother scolded her.” Halina whispered into my left ear quietly, smirking until Nokomi shot her a warning glance. Halina retreated to Lila’s side.
I stood at the rail, hands on the smooth wood, taking the soft breeze upon my face, cooling the soft burn I felt from both the sun and Nokomi. “I understand duty, princess.”
“I suppose you do, after all of these years…”
Nokomi was suddenly right beside me, looking out across the water. Her eyes stayed on the nearest of the small islands, where birds with long, curved beaks stalked the water’s edge, looking for minnows or other small food. I watched them also, until I felt something brush against my hand.
I swallowed and looked down at her hand, resting upon the railing, palm up and ever so slightly touching mine. I saw a small white scar upon her palm from the same cut that had leaked its blood into my forehead, bonding us together as children. Our eyes met.
My throat tightened. My skin felt aflame. That cool burn that had been contained to my face was now raging through my veins. I felt heat from her skin pour across the narrow space between us. Dog suddenly sat very alert between us, looking up at our faces.
“What did my mother ask of you?” Nokomi whispered, knowing I could not keep the truth from her when I was lost in her eyes.
“She wanted me to spy on your suitors. I’m to protect you from them, but also observe and offer my opinions of them to her.” I whispered back.
I did not feel that I was betraying either Kalb or the Empress. Nokomi and I were pack, and my allegiance was ever to her first, and others later. I would never harm her.
“And my father?” She asked.
“He asked me to do what Kalb wishes of me in order to protect and serve your family.” I answered. I swallowed and asked the question that tickled at my tongue. “And what would you ask of me, princess? How can I serve you?”
Nokomi took a breath the speak, but stopped. Her brow wrinkled in consternation. She licked her lips, thought better of it, and broke away from my eyes.
I heard a clatter of dishes behind us. Halina and Lila were very much watching us, but they made a show of setting up tea. The tea had already been set up before, so it was clearly just something to keep their hands busy.
Nokomi placed her hand atop mine, and I turned back to her in surprise. “I would have you be a true friend to me, Go.”
“Always, princess.” I smiled. “It is what I have always wished since the day we met. It is what I have worked all these years to get back to you for.”
Her earlier anxieties faded, and she warmed me with one of her rarest smiles, one of those that lit up the day. She led me over to the sitting area, and the four of us spoke at length of palace life, of the places I’d seen in my travels, and of her family.
Lila spoke at length only once, retelling a story that had both the princess and Halina laughing until they clutched at each other with tears in their eyes and could hardly breathe. Lila spoke rarely, but she had a keen eye for detail and was a great study of a person’s traits and habits. She could imitate people and tell a story in such a detailed manner that made you feel as if you’d been there.
Dog dined on bread and treats that the girls fed him, teaching him a trick where he held a scrap on his nose for as long as he could, and then he had to snap it up before it hit the ground. He put up with their little game, because it was the most attention he’d had in weeks, as well as some of the best little pieces of meat either of us had ever tasted. I’d never known him to be such an attention-hog, and I feared he would be spoiled by our time in the palace, but I let him get away with it.
When the meeting was over, the midday meal bells had long since rung, and we left with a promise to meet again sometime soon. Dog and I retreated to our home, memorizing the layout of this new piece of the palace grounds, but palace maps were not so memorable as the tingling reminder of Nokomi’s hand upon on my own.
I’d been assigned a small set of quarters in a small cluster of tiny homes for scribes that was located between the palace and the royal residence. There were eight of these little houses together in two rows of four, surrounded by gravel lanes and small shrubberies that did little to distract from the fact that these were small boxes, rooms with roofs for people just important enough to be close to the palace but not enough to have a fancy residence. I didn’t care. Dog and I had need for little more than a dry piece of ground to sleep on, as we’d often demonstrated in the last few years.
Still, it was mine for the time being, so we explored it, finding it suitable to our needs. There was one entry, a sliding wooden door that faced south. Two shuttered windows, one on the east side and one on the west, admitted enough light and fresh air to make it pleasant enough. A cot was placed in one corner of the single room, and a mattress had been placed on the stone floor, likely for Dog. A small table was against the north wall, along with a basin for washing up and a jug for drawing water. I’d seen a well not far from the little home, so getting water would be easy enough.
A simple writing desk stocked with writing supplies was on the wall beneath the eastern window, not that I planned to write many messages, but it would help maintain the idea that I was a scribe, of all things. A leather satchel for carrying ink, parchment, and quills had been left hanging on a peg beside the desk, along with a scribe’s uniform. I frowned at it, for the identity as a soldier was very much part of who I was. Perhaps the lie, the illusion of being a scribe would work in some situations, but I did not relish the thought.
It was not yet sunset, but it felt late. I searched a small shelf in the corner, finding tallow candles and a broom. Military life had left me with a tidy nature. I didn’t mind cleaning up after myself. That left only food to worry about. I could feel the pangs of hunger Dog was sending out.
The jug beside the wash basin already had water in it. I sniffed it, finding it clean enough to drink, and poured some in the basin for Dog. He lapped at it briefly, taking his fill. Afterward, I used it to wash the dust from my face, feeling grit fall away from my eyebrows and under my jaw. I dried my face on the towel provided, and glanced over at Dog, who gave me a look.
“This is home now.” I explained, not that I needed to.
He looked unimpressed and decided to explore the sleeping area. For a moment, I thought he’d take the cot and leave the mattress to me, but he settled onto the mattress after circling around on it twice. I snorted a laugh and shuffled over to fall beside him.
“I can’t believe we finally met her again. We waited years for this.” I smiled at the memories, and Dog licked my hand. “I know, right?”
I looked into his expressive eyes and tweaked one of his ears. He growled and bit at my hand playfully. That, of course, quickly became a wrestling match that ended up with both of us covered in hair and slobber, with me laughing and him panting and whining.
I was about to say something when I caught a scent of something through the western window, carried on the wind. Dog and I both turned that way, eyes narrowing. That was Nokomi’s perfume.
Had she sought us out so soon? I scrambled to my feet, realizing that I looked a mess. I hastily brushed the dog hair from my uniform, straightened my hair, and brushed some of Dog’s slobber from my forearm onto the back of my jacket.
Moments later, a knock sounded on the door. I shared an excited look with Dog and struggled to keep myself from running to the door. Instead, I walked at a careful, measured pace. I would meet her with decorum this time, greeting her properly this time.
I slid the door aside, my sharp ears picking up on the heartbeat on the other side of the door. I opened my mouth to offer my greetings, but the words died in my mouth as I found Nokomi’s handmaiden, Halina standing on my doorstep.
Her blue eyes were like chips of bright sky, and her mouth was holding back a smile, just barely. “Hello.”
“Halina.” I said softly, nodding my head for lack of knowing what the proper greeting for her was. I was unaware of her actual station, and she’d taken me by surprise.
“Captain Goren.” She reached over and plucked a tuft of dog’s fur from the front of my jacket, just on the ribs, where I’d overlooked it.
My nostrils took another hit of her perfume, or Nokomi’s perfume actually. It was on her wrists and the hollow of her throat. My hand snaked out, seizing her wrist, though not painfully. I drew in a breath along her skin. “You smell like her.”
Halina’s eyes registered surprise, even if her face did not. She carefully pulled her hand back. After a moment, she smiled warmly and tilted her head to regard me, as if she’d just realized something. I noticed that she was of a height with Nokomi, maybe even slightly taller, though her shoulders were a scant bit narrower. Given the right lighting, costume, and hair done right, she could almost be Nokomi’s double – except for the eyes. One would never mistake these crystal blue eyes for Nokomi’s warm coffee-colored eyes.
“And you smell like Dog.” She said ‘dog’ in such a way that seemed to indicate that she knew more about us than she’d let on in that first meeting.
How much had Nokomi told her of us? How much could she really? Today had only been our third meeting ever, and I doubted that Kalb told her much of my exploits, although she could have overheard conversations between the minister and her father.
Dog stepped forward to sniff at the hem of her skirts. I let him. We’d memorize Halina’s scent and use it to tell the two apart, even if she tried to disguise herself with Nokomi’s perfume. He finished sniffing, and I took in her scent through him. She had her own complex scent, not unpleasant at all, but it was not Nokomi’s.
When Dog settled back on his heels, I asked her, “What can I do for you?”
“I have an invitation for you.” She announced cheerfully.
I held out my hand, waiting for the invitation to be handed over.
She laughed musically, her cheeks dimpling attractively. “Do you think that the princess commits such things to paper? Now let me in so I can offer you the particulars.”
I frowned at her, but stood aside for her to enter. She stared at me expectantly, and I realized she wanted me to close the door, so I did so. Kalb’s words about being careful and circumspect in my public dealings came to mind. Talking to one of the princess’ handmaidens in my open door could certainly draw unwanted attention. I doubted that many scribes did such a thing.
With the door closed, Halina reached out and put a hand on my chest. I looked at the hand in confusion. Her eyes not leaving mine, she settled in against my chest as Nokomi had done just a few hours ago. She closed her eyes, her long lashes fluttering shut, and she reached to pull my face down toward hers. Her scent confused me, so close to Nokomi’s and yet not.
She was playing with me, testing me. I could feel it, and I didn’t care for it. I growled, took her by the shoulders, and thrust her an arm’s length away from me.
Halina’s eyes were suddenly wide open once more, and her hand went to her mouth. “Your eyes!”
I blinked and turned away. They’d gone yellow. I knew what she had seen.
“So it is true, the rumors about Captain Goren and his special soldiers.” She looked at Dog with new understanding, but he regarded her cautiously. “I thought the princess was making up stories…”
“Why are you here?” I demanded.
She blinked. “To deliver an invitation. The princess wishes to take a meal with you, four days hence.”
“And this test? Was this also her plan?”
She smiled. “That was all my idea. I saw what passed between you and Nokomi. You are like two old lovers, but you only knew each other as children. Your bond is something special, and I wanted to see what it was.”
My forehead throbbed suddenly. I massaged it with my fingertips. “What we have is different. You could not understand.”
“I’d like to.” She offered, placing her hand gently on my wrist. When had she moved back to my side?
“But you can’t.” I replied simply.
I was starting to regard this encounter as a military exchange. She was probing me for weakness. She was getting a measure of me. Dog wanted to get to know her better, in the manner of dogs, but the wrestling and sniffing that would require was not something I was about to engage in.
“Too bad.” She inhaled deeply and let it go with a sigh. “Do you have an answer for her then?”
I remembered Kalb’s warning and the Empress’ request. Even so, I couldn’t bring myself to say no to Nokomi. I would have to find a way to balance things, to keep everyone happy. “I will meet her, whenever and wherever she requests.” I answered quickly.
“There is something between you two, and I will figure it out.” Halina smiled the smile of one who enjoys puzzles and mysteries.
I shrugged. “Perhaps.”
“We will see each other again, Captain Goren.” Halina promised, and I had a feeling she meant it. The only question was would Nokomi be with her when she arranged our next meeting?
Dog and I watched her leave. She slid the door closed behind her, leaving the two of us alone once more. I wondered how close she’d been to drawing her knife after she saw my eyes change.
We stared at the closed door for a long moment, at least until Dog’s stomach growled. A moment later, mine did, too. We were bonded, the two of us.
We went searching for food with the perfume still tingling in our noses.
Kalb was not one to stick spies and cutthroats around the royal family without them knowing of it. So, he quickly came up with excuses for me to happen across the royal couple at different places over the next few hours. Or, rather, I should say that he’d already planned for them ahead of time, fully expecting my cooperation. I’d say that was presumptuous of him, but he knew me well.
The meetings were deftly managed, with each one happening without any pomp or circumstance. It was done in such a way that it didn’t seem as if I were an understudy or assistant to him, so others wouldn’t take note of me traveling around the palace with him. Rather, it was more like he was introducing them to a new tool they would have at their disposal. He simply told me when and where to meet him, and he had things arranged beforehand to work out.
We met first with Emperor Baraz, as was only right. He’d been a prominent figure in my childhood, even before I knew his position. After all, he’d been the one who had broken up the joyous first meeting I’d had with Nokomi all those years ago. His soldiers and Kalb had stumbled across me bleeding on his daughter in that alley, standing over the corpse of the dead desert cat. I’d fled and hid safely away that time. My second meeting with Nokomi and Kalb had not ended with another escape.
The Emperor had changed little since I’d last seen him, though I could only count our meetings on one hand. He still dressed more like a general than a king. He wore fine clothes, but he wore them in a simple military fashion. Even the expensive sword buckled at his waist was a functional weapon, one he knew very well how to use, I’d heard. As of yet, I’d never seen him draw and use his sword, though he had offered it to me once to execute a fellow student at the Kennel. In the end, I’d used my own teeth and claws to kill him instead, avenging a friend and pack member whose dog had been murdered.
The Emperor was a man used to avoiding small talk. He had always been about business when I’d seen him. I imagined he had softer moments when he was alone amongst family, but it was difficult to imagine him being anything but the rigid, imposing leader I saw before me now.
We met him in a library, of all places. I knew how to read, but did not relish in it, unless it happened to be orders detailing a particularly favorable new assignment back at the palace.
The Emperor’s library was an immaculate, richly-outfitted hall with row upon row of glowing reddish shelves, all stuffed with carefully labeled scrolls and books. A few attendants hovered near the entrances, maintaining their posts in silence, waiting to be called to assist in finding a specific material. The Emperor was leaning over a table, reviewing a large scroll that he’d spread across the table. Kalb arrived from the south door, and I approached from the east just moments after him.
Emperor Baraz did not look up as we approached and took our places across the table from him. My eyes roamed across the scroll, actually a map detailing troop positions and border garrisons. I recognized several areas I’d been, where the dog soldiers and I had shifted some of those lines in our kingdom’s favor. This one was more up-to-date than the last I’d seen, I assumed.
After clenching his jaw and frowning at the map, the Emperor looked up at us. He nodded briefly to Kalb and Teeth before looking over and Dog and me. What he saw when he looked at us, I could not tell, but he certainly knew who we were. We’d left quite an impression on him when he’d seen us shift into the beastlike creature we’d become to kill Drum, the boy at the Kennel. Even in the years since, on the rare chances we’d crossed each other’s paths, he still had a guarded look about him when he looked upon us.
“Captain Goren, returned from the border.” Baraz said smoothly. A significant look passed between him and Kalb. He clearly knew the reasons behind our return.
“Sir.” I bowed deeply. Dog actually lowered his eyes to the floor, too.
Baraz shook his head. “It is still so strange to see the two of you together. I’d always thought Kalb to be something special, and yet here you are. Here we are. The things we’ve done together, they’ve built a stronger nation. Our borders are secure. My lineage is secure.”
“And we wish to keep it that way.” Kalb said warily. Teeth growled deep in his throat.
“Vigilance… I know.” Baraz nodded. “Things are about to get more difficult from here out. I am glad to have someone else I can trust, someone that Kalb trusts to keep an extra eye on my family. There is no duty more important that I could ask of either of you.”
I lowered my head again in a slight bow, not knowing what else to say or do.
“Go with my blessing, and do Kalb’s will. Listen to him, learn from him, and protect my family.” Baraz dismissed us with that, going back to his map and a smaller scroll, where he scratched notes with a quilled pen.
I did not bother him with a response, empty words about doing my best or seeing to it. Instead, I bowed stiffly at the waist and retreated from the room, exiting from the same way I’d come in.
We met with the Emperor’s wife, Empress Anahita, next. She was someone I’d never met. I’d seen statues and paintings of her, but I did not know what to expect. Baraz was such a hard man, and Nokomi was like a breath of fresh air to me. What sort of woman could handle the Emperor and produce a daughter such as Nokomi? I found myself looking forward to the meeting.
This second meeting was in a private garden, one nestled between the palace and the royal residence. As I made my way there from the expansive halls of the palace building, the royal residence came into view. It was a giant domed building with a second dome built atop it. The lower dome was broad and wide, with a shallow incline to its ribbed roof. The upper dome was smaller and more steeply rounded, built with sparkling copper tiles that glittered like snake scales. That second dome was topped with a modest turret and a flag bearing the arms of the royal family: a flame at the center of two crossed swords set upon a red field.
At the four corners of this large residence were towers, each attached at an ordinal direction. The nearest of these towers to me was the northwest tower, which was topped with a bell-shaped structure painted in blue. I could see the southwestern tower further away, that one topped in green. Between these towers was the Empress’ private garden, but to get to that, one had to pass through another set of walls.
As I’ve said before, the palace was a series of walls within walls, each one more exclusive than the last. To get to the royal family, you had to pass through several checkpoints, and this was no different. Kalb had given me a pass, an engraved metal signet I could show when needed. I wore it on a chain around my neck, as I was not going to start wearing rings. Rings might very well cause serious difficulties if I were to bring out my beast, perhaps even slicing off a finger.
With the signet, I was allowed beyond that wall. The guards silently let me by, but they carried themselves very professionally. These were some of the best I’d seen yet about the palace. One more gate brought me to the Empress’ gardens. Not just anyone was allowed in. The Empress would already know I was coming, or I’d not be permitted to enter.
Kalb was already there, sitting in a corner, far away from the action. He played with his dog, lavishing Teeth in a rare show of affection. His momentary display of youthfulness made it clear he would be ignoring the Empress and me as we spoke.
The Empress was unattended, surprisingly. There were not servants waiting to wipe her hands for her, to fetch her a cool drink, or to carry her on a sedan chair. It was just her in the garden, which was modest when compared to the palace courtyard, but not small by any means.
This garden, unlike the courtyard, made no attempt to be lush and verdant. No, this one was a testament to the harsh beauty of the desert. Instead of fish ponds and flowering shrubs that needed constant watering, this garden was filled with barrel-shaped cactuses and desert trees that needed little tending. This is not to say that they could not be beautiful. They could, certainly, but they hid their beauty, waiting for one of those rare rains, after which they would reveal their hidden treasures for those who happened to be patient enough to wait for them.
Empress Anahita stood beneath a tree I recognized as a myrrh tree. Its resin and sap could be collected and used in remedies or gathered for its scent. The bark was rough, and the tree was twisted and gnarled, but it had been artfully pruned and shaped.
I approached slowly, so as not to seem overly eager or to startle her, since she appeared lost in thought. Dog’s feet whispered across the sand beside me.
The Empress tilted her head up to look at the tree, smiled to herself, and turned to face us. So I was able to see her truly for the first time. I could see where Nokomi got her warm eyes. She had much of her mother in her, though her mother’s hair was thicker, falling in dark braids to her waist, which was swollen with child. She wore simple linen, but had no need for ornament, because she had one of the most stunning faces I’d ever beheld. Even though she was older than Nokomi, her face had aged well, offering a mature sort of grace that was only accentuated by her pregnant state. She radiated fertility and nobility, and the heat that came off her skin was noticeable from even a pace away. Fire-blooded indeed.
“Empress.” Dog sat at my feet, tongue lolling out as I bowed.
Strangely, faced with the Empress instead of the Emperor, Dog felt no compunction to offer any humility or show of submissiveness. Instead, he rolled over on his back and put his feet in the air, scratching his back happily on the sand. After sneezing once, he regained his feet and looked at me.
The Empress’ mouth quirked into a smile as she regarded Dog. “You are the boy and dog I have heard my husband say so much about over the years.”
I lifted my head and met her eyes briefly, noting genuine warmth within them. “I suppose I am, although I did not know he spoke of me at all or often.”
“Oh, get him and Kalb together, and you come up in conversation often enough. They have plans for you, Go, many of them. Plans and expectations.”
I smiled softly, pleased that she knew my real name. “And do you have plans of your own for me, Empress?” I inquired quietly.
She took a step over to me, reaching out her warm fingertips and touching me on the chin to lift my face until I stared back into her eyes. Her warm eyes flashed with inner light, reflecting the fire that ran through her veins. I felt a tremble of something inside me, something I could not put a name to.
“Women of have special powers, Go. We can do things that even the men cannot. Oh, my family may all have the fire within us, the ability to destroy, but only the women can create. Baraz is very good at what he does, conquering and holding on to what he has taken, but to truly keep it, he needs what I have inside of me.”
“Your son.” I whispered.
She smiled, letting my chin go finally. My skin felt feverish where she’d touched me, and the scar upon my forehead burned.
“He will be part of it, but we do not have a single child. Neema and Nokomi will be important if we are truly going to hold this land. They will have to make connections to secure our future. Do you know what that means?”
I said nothing, going very still. Dog whined at my side.
“They will marry, Go. They will take generals, or the richest merchants, or the sons of neighboring kings as consorts. We will cement ourselves into this place until you cannot remove our family from this land, because we will be the root of it. To do that, we have to connect.”
“And where do I fit in that?” I asked.
“Where indeed?” She placed her hands on her swollen belly and stepped back toward the tree, rubbing her fingers across the resin and bringing them to her nose.
“Nokomi will need someone beside her,” she said thoughtfully, “someone to keep her safe, to be her friend. Someone to help her navigate her way through her suitors.”
“Suitors?” The word tasted foul in my mouth. I hoped it did not show on my face.
“She will be meeting with those who wish to use her position for gain. I will have you there, a shadow watching over. You will report back to me what you think of them.”
“You want me to spy on your daughter when she meets these men who would marry her?” I didn’t know how I could remain loyal to Nokomi and spy upon her, but Kalb had insisted that I follow the orders of all of the royal family.
The Empress’ head swiveled my way. “You can do that, can’t you?”
“Yes, Empress.” I bowed my head. I would have to, no matter how little I liked it.
“Good. See to it.” She said it in a dismissive way, and I knew I was done with my audience. “And Go?” She called as I started off toward the gate I’d entered through.
I turned back. “Yes, Empress?”
“It was nice to meet you. Kalb has told me you are to be trusted, and I take his advice much to heart. Thank you for your service.”
I bowed deeply, and then hurried off. Kalb made no move to join me this time. I knew to head to my quarters then, and it was just as well. I wanted to be alone with Dog, to think.
Kalb regarded me and gave a gruff bark that was something between reproach and greeting.
After meeting the princess, I’d proceeded into the palace, leaving behind the pleasantness of the courtyard to find my way through the labyrinth of passages to the offices of Minister Kalb. If Dog and I had less keen senses of smell, we’d likely have had to ask directions a dozen times, but we knew Kalb’s smell very well.
As one of the Emperor’s advisors, he maintained his own meeting rooms within the palace. This was one of such rooms. It was spartan in style, lacking comforts that he did not require. Kalb was a hard man, and it would unnerve most visitors who expected opulence from an important advisor, not a hard, militaristic aesthetic.
I cared little of his décor and much about what he would say. I knew he was not truly angry with me, no matter how gruff his front was. Even so, his yellow eyes were still piercing, even with the cataracts that were beginning to cloud them. At his side, his massive dog, Teeth, was licking his chops.
Teeth was easily one of the largest dogs I’d ever met, and I’d met a lot. I could only think of one or two other dogs near his size. He was thick and heavily muscled with a thick coat of short, dark hair and even thicker skin. He was easily as heavy as a grown man, heavier than most, and twice as strong. I’d seen his teeth puncture pieces of plate mail once or twice. His canines had sunk into flesh even through leather and metal gauntlets.
“Sir… or should I call you minister?” I inclined my head respectfully to my closest teacher.
“Go.” Kalb said my true name, not the one I’d taken in an affectation of a civilized man. “Your little stunt out there greeting the princess will not go unnoticed. There are eyes on her at all times. Now, you will be of interest.”
I nodded. Clearly our meeting had not gone unnoticed if he’d already heard of it. It didn’t surprise me that one of the Emperor’s closest advisors had spies in the palace. It probably would have surprised me if he hadn’t heard of my meeting with the princess. It just meant he was doing his job in watching over the royal family, and I knew from our years of association that he took that duty with full seriousness.
“The blue-eyed girl, Halina. She carries a knife.” I remarked.
Kalb grunted and settled heavily into his chair, an old piece of furniture that was well-worn around the arms. “And she knows how to use it. The girls I put at the princess’ side are more than just pretty faces that know how to serve tea.”
“Good.” I meant it. Her safety meant everything to me. We were pack. “I take it I will also be set to protecting her?”
Kalb waved me closer. I approached one of the hard-backed chairs that was arranged in a semicircle in front of him, but chose to stand instead. Kalb noticed my reluctance to sit.
“You’re a beast, Go, more comfortable in the wilds than in places more civilized.” He observed.
“I know.” I admitted. Dog gave his best impression of a human grin. If he could have smiled, he would have.
“It was not a judgement. I understand it well. You have no idea how often I wish to tear my clothes off and run wild in the sand and scrublands, away from these careful streets and the unpleasant complexities and niceties of palace life. How I wish to run with the dogs, to hunt and kill with my teeth.” Kalb sighed, sharing a look with Teeth, who clearly echoed his sentiments.
“But you have responsibilities that make such a simple existence impossible…” I offered.
“That’s part of it. The other part is getting old.” Kalb answered. “Do you know how old I am?”
I shrugged, but knew he wanted an answer. I took in the grey in Kalb’s beard and the deep lines creasing his forehead and the corners of his eyes. His hands, too, looked old. The knuckles were redder and more swollen than I remembered. “Sixty-five?” I guessed.
Kalb laughed. “Do I look so bad as that? I am only forty-six, Goren. We age quickly, as a balance to our dogs living longer.”
There was some truth to this. I knew that most dogs only lived perhaps a dozen years, maybe eighteen at the most. Yet all of the men I’d trained had been with their dogs for five to ten years, some even longer, and their dogs still moved with the vigor of youth, as if they were only three to five years old.
“There is so much shared in our bonds, Go. We share scents, thoughts, and feelings. We gain the strength and speed of the beasts, and they gain some of our intelligence. Our lives are also shared, as a measure of our lifespans are given to the dogs, keeping them alive with us. The trade-off is that we cannot live as long, but would we wish to live longer without our dogs beside us?”
“No.” I answered without hesitation, feeling the truth in my answer. Dog pressed his muzzle against my leg reassuringly.
“Time, Go. I’m running out of time, but our enemies won’t relent when I’m gone.” Kalb announced, clenching his hands into fists.
I’d never heard Kalb speak this way. He was always wary, protective, and dedicated to his path. Now, a bit of self-pity was creeping into his voice, but it came from a deep need to do his duty, something he seemed to feel he was becoming incapable of doing.
“What do you need of me, sir?”
“Emperor Baraz’s wife is pregnant.”
“Empress Anahita is having another child?” My mind whirled with the possibilities.
“It’s a boy.” Kalb whispered, just loud enough for me to hear. Even if our meeting was being listened upon, no one except one with the hearing of a dog would have been able to hear his words just then.
“How do you know?”
Kalb smiled toothily under his beard, amused that I would question him. “It is the way of their people, the fire-blooded. A woman of the New Blood knows.”
That meant a lot of things. Emperor Baraz had two daughters, Neema, his eldest girl, and Nokomi, the younger one. Neema’s consort, when she took one, would be well-positioned to make a move on the throne, but Baraz’s brother had a stronger claim on the throne.
General Navid was an ambitious man, a pragmatic sort. I’d met him once or twice, mostly by accident, and always after a battle. He might not have known who or what I was, but I knew exactly who he was. He looked much like his brother, but taller, with a hawkish nose and a hard glint about his eyes.
Except, with a boy on the way, what would that mean for the line of succession? Even as a younger sibling, this baby would be the firstborn male in the line. His claim would take precedence. Even if something happened to Emperor Baraz, the girls would help raise him until he came of age. He would be the Emperor-in-waiting with the Empress or one of his older sisters serving as regent.
I chewed on that for a moment, and Kalb saw the realization settle in.
“So you see why you were recalled from the dusty edges of our land and brought back to a place where you might be used more usefully?” He asked.
“What I did there was important.” I protested weakly.
Kalb favored me with a smile. “It was a delay, a chance to keep you out of the scenes for as long as I could, Go. Now, I have no choice. I needed someone here I could trust.”
“There are others…”
Kalb shook his head. “None like us, as you well know.”
Of the hundred or so dogs and boys I’d met, none were so close to the beast as Kalb and I. Others could take on some aspect of the beast, growing taller, becoming stronger, and perhaps even producing slightly elongated teeth or some simple sort of claws, but that was as far as they could go. Kalb and I, we were different. We could let the beast take control, becoming creatures that were neither man nor dog, but somewhere between the two.
I took a breath and met his eyes. “What would you have of me? Of us?”
“I had you stationed far away to keep your nature secret from those who should not know what we do. Now, you’re going to be my eyes and ears in the palace, my knife where it is needed. You cannot play these roles if you call too much attention to yourself. You must be circumspect in your actions, and you must be present without being noticeable.”
“Sir.” I nodded in acknowledgement. These things I could be, so long as they brought me near Nokomi, and so far it had.
“However,” Kalb favored me with a sad look, “I know this will be hard for you to hear, but I must insist that you stay away from the princess, as much as you can do so without slighting her.”
He waved a hand, cutting off my response. Dog growled, but Teeth growled louder, not that it made Dog back down.
“They can’t know of your connection. We serve the Emperor. We must protect his interests, and that means his whole family, not just Nokomi.”
“What you need, I will do.” I agreed reluctantly. He hadn’t said I could have no contact with her. I just needed to let her initiate it, or meet in secret, away from prying eyes and ears.
“Good.” Kalb relaxed visibly. “You must understand that with the news of this new child, the risk of attack has grown infinitely. I fear that our enemy’s patience will grow very thin. He will make a move, and in his haste, I hope he will finally expose himself.”
“And if he does, what do we do?”
“We tear his throat out to protect the ones we love, Go.” Kalb grinned ruthlessly.
I nodded. “We tear their throats out, sir. Every last one of them, no matter who they are.”
Kalb slid from his chair. He walked down to cast his arms around my shoulders. “I am glad you are home, Go. There is so much to do, and I fear we will not be able to do enough. We cannot fail.”
He was my most trusted teacher, and while I did not love him as I did Adish, who had been a very brief father figure to me, I did feel some affection toward the yellow-eyed man. He was the closest thing I had to a peer, the only one who understood what I was, what we were.
“Your eyes, ears, and your knife. I will be them all.” I promised him, meaning every word of it.
Dog growled in agreement, making a similar vow to Teeth, who barked in response.
I’d never been to the palace before. It was not a place that a child visits when he lives in the streets, as I had. No, my time in the city had mostly been spent sleeping, scavenging for food, and avoiding the human predators that prowled a big city’s dark and narrow side streets. Many times I’d found that people were nastier creatures than the beasts that lived in the wild.
The palace was expansive, making up an entire section of the city by itself, a different quarter than I had lived in. The palace itself was a complex of buildings, all walled in, with walls within walls and more small buildings within those walls. Surrounding the palace was something of a second city, where the scribes, attendants, officers, and officials lived, as well as those who served them. The farther you lived from the palace grounds, the lower your rank.
I approached the palace through this surrounding village first, marveling at the luxury even the lowest of them appeared to live in. Their grounds were all well-kept, with manicured shrubs lining the approaches and decorative flowers sitting in expensive pottery. Many of these estates had their own walls, with two to four buildings within them. Their roofs were tiled, lofting above the walls and gates that surrounded them. Here and there, I could even see second or third stories, where men and women went about their morning work on balconies that overlooked their neighbors.
Dog and I looked at each other. We’d lived on cots in dusty tents or worse for the last few years. The Kennel, where we’d first been trained, had initially offered no better than moldering old blankets and hard-packed dirt floors. We’d changed that, so we’d eventually slept on straw-stuffed mattresses, and we’d taken to eating our meals at the low kneeling tables that were now in favor. Still, we couldn’t imagine living in such comfort, and we hadn’t even seen the palace yet.
The last few houses we passed even had soldiers out front, guards with halberds that brought to mind the auburn guards of the Kennel. Like these soldiers, the auburn guards had always watched us to make sure we remained more man than beast, never stepping out of line. Not that they’d been able to always control us. No, Dog and I were wilder than what they’d dealt with before our coming, and everyone we’d met there had been changed because of our meeting.
We finally approached the palace, or at least the outer wall of the palace. A low wall, perhaps the half again as tall as I was, marked the outer perimeter of the palace. A simple gate with a tiled roof and heavy wooden doors wrapped in iron marked the entrance. A squad of soldiers, eight total, stood by. I knew from the low roof just beyond the gate that there was another score at least waiting by in a the guardhouse. It was a pretty standard setup for any fort in the kingdom, but there would be even more guards stationed here than I was used to. Security would be tighter, more levels of defense stacked upon each other.
Beyond the gate and wall, I could see ornamented watchtowers, including at least two where bells could be rang to signal attack. If the bells sounded, soldiers would pour out of their stations and move to bar doors and lock down each section of the palace. Attackers would have to make their way through at least half a dozen gated walls and obstacles to get to anywhere significant, more if they wanted to get to the royal family and the highest advisors. I smiled at this, thinking about how my mind had been trained to visually probe for weaknesses.
The guards halted me, eyeing Dog and I warily. I wore no signs of rank, though I was effectively a captain in the army and outranked all of these men, except perhaps whatever officer they had in charge of this gate, although he was not currently visible.
Smiling, I offered my orders to the men, who took them and read carefully. Upon reading my name at the bottom, two of the men looked at each other, whispering my name amongst themselves. Clearly, they’d heard of me or my exploits.
“Captain Goren, proceed in.” One of the said quickly. They sketched a hasty military bow, stepping aside.
I nodded and entered the palace, scanning from side to side and ignoring the soldiers’ whispers, though I could still hear them. Two large covered pavilions were ahead of me to my left and right with another, smaller gate just in front of me, a long stone’s throw away.
The large pavilions stood on both ends of the massive C-shaped building beyond them. They were open to the air, with heavy wooden stairs leading up to three floors of walkways and seating areas. Soldiers, officers, and palace workers were evident on each floor, walking, talking, and taking tea together in discussions of politics and intrigue. I cared little for them, noting that Nokomi was not among them.
I could sense her, somewhat distant, but so near to me, nearer than I’d felt her since I was a child. Dog and I quick-stepped toward the small gate between the pavilions, working closer to the palace proper, feeling that it was the correct way to go to reach Nokomi. Once more, I flashed my orders and ignored the whispers.
Now I was inside the palace grounds. Rounded, onion-shaped towers were at my left and right, the endcaps to the largest building I’d ever seen. The building was in the shape of a large open rectangle with a missing side, with the open end toward me. Built in the space between the three walls was a long courtyard, cast in shadows by the palace. This section of the palace was impressively large, the largest building of the entire palace complex in fact. Only the royal residence was close in size, but it was merely half as large as this giant structure.
This part of the palace had been built with marble columns that supported two very tall balconied stories, the upper of which was lined with hundreds of horseshoe arches. It had been built in a style that marked it as a remnant of our old rulers, the leaders of this land before Nokomi’s family had come and conquered our lands. Only the onion domes at the ends of the building looked to be new additions to this part of the palace. Their copper plating burned like the sun itself, making me look aside.
The courtyard I stood at the entrance to was covered with a crisscross of graveled paths that led between ornamental plants and flowering or fruited trees. Benches and covered sitting areas were placed strategically around the long courtyard, and there were also several small ponds with decorative bridges spanning across them. People in ornamental clothes and official garb gathered in the sitting areas or walked and talked as they enjoyed the grounds.
On any other day, Dog and I would have likely to do the same. We would have stopped to explore, watching the fat fish wriggle through the warm ponds, or taken in some shade beneath a fragrant tree. Today, we only had one goal, and she was growing nearer by the moment. I could feel it in my forehead, which had gone from a tingle to a warm burn. She knew we were coming, and she was hurrying to meet us.
My jaw tightened and my heart leapt. I continued through the gardens, gravel crunching crisply beneath my booted feet as we headed toward the far end. We approached the far end after a good walk, and I could see taller trees, but they were spindly and decoratively pruned, so as to not offer any visual barriers to the guards that patrolled the balconies of the second floor.
I could feel Nokomi growing close, ever so close, but the trees obscured my view. Dog whined beside me, feeling the same anxiousness that I felt. We shared a soul, he and I, so how could he not feel as I did?
Abruptly, I halted, Dog coming to heel beside me, sitting in the gravel at my right side. My hand reflexively went to his head, resting between his ears. His bristly hair was familiar and comforting against my palm and on my fingertips.
She was here at last, and my forehead burned feverishly. I caught scent of her at the same moment I saw her through the trees as she exited the palace. Her perfume carried to me, the same perfume I knew from that day in the market and from the handkerchief my instructors had used to play with my emotions back at the Kennel.
She took the steps two at a time, holding her skirts as she went. The two ladies-in-waiting beside her struggled to keep up. She skidded to a halt at the bottom of the stairs and her eyes widened at the sight of me, chest heaving. She was breathing heavily as if she’d just ran, but I felt the same way; I struggled to keep my breathing steady. Like two monumental forces coming together, we were finally staring at one another, and there was no one here to keep us apart. I’d waited most of my life for this. We took a measure of each other from a safe distance, some twenty paces perhaps.
What did she see when she looked at me? Did she still see my hazel eyes, green in the center and brown around the edges? I knew my skin was darker than it had been, from years in the desert sun, and I was certainly taller and heavier than the scrawny boy she’d known from the streets. My clothes, other than travel dusty, were certainly not the rags I’d worn the other two times she’d seen me. I had my adult height and size about me now, and I carried myself with confidence. I was not a scared kid hiding in alleyways any longer – I was a successful officer in her father’s army.
And her, even at this distance, I could see the warm, reddish-brown of her eyes that complimented the healthy glow of her skin, as set off by her silken gown and gauzy headscarf, both cream-colored but embroidered with tones of yellow, scarlet, and greenish-blue. If her scent was the same, her face was not. She had grown into her face and was certainly more stunning for it. Her eyes were surrounded by dark lashes that set off her large eyes, which were set to either side of her shapely nose. Her mouth was small, with lips of a lively red color, and a slight cleft on her chin only drew more attention to her well-balanced face. Her hair had been carefully braided into a complicated scheme that I wished to run my fingers over, exploring each delicate twist.
We began stumbling toward each other at the same moment, Dog at my side and her two attendants flanking her. She clutched once more at her silk skirts, gathering them in her fists so she would not trip over them as she approached. I blinked away the burning feeling that had spread all across my face and was threatening to sink down into my the muscles at the sides of my neck. My mouth felt dry as I crossed the last few steps to her.
I didn’t know what she was going to do before it happened, but her arms opened and we threw ourselves into an awkward hug. Her head went against my collarbone, and my chin fit perfectly on top of her head. I was certainly taller than her now, though I had not been years ago. Dog found her hand with his muzzle, and I could feel her smile against my chest as he licked her fingers.
“Goren.” She whispered softly, but my ears could easily hear it.
“I’d say that’s not my name, but it’s on my orders now, too.” I muttered.
She pushed herself back a hands width, keeping her arms around me still, so she could look up into my eyes and I into hers. I swam in those eyes for a long moment and a smile came across her face like the sun rising over the horizon. The burning in my face relaxed, replaced by a warmth that suffused through my whole body. I was acutely aware of her complicated scent, a mixture my nose interpreted as flowers, apricots, and honey, as well as the jasmine and bergamot musk of her hair.
I could have stayed in that moment forever, but her lips quirked into a smile and her eyebrow rose with curiosity.
“They made us all take people names.” I explained. “We couldn’t very well go by nicknames like: Scar, Legs, Killer, Mongrel, or Go. I needed a real name, so I took the one you gave me.”
Her lips parted in a smile. “I’m glad you kept it, that you remembered.”
“I remember everything about you, everything that ever happened between us.”
As I said this, I realized the impact our meeting was having on Nokomi’s two attendants, who were trying not to whisper and stare at the two of us, but failing. I smiled at the two of them, watching the prettier, shorter one of the two blush deeply and avert her eyes shyly.
Nokomi released me then, but kept a hand on Dog, fiddling with one of his round ears. “These are my handmaidens, Lila and Halina.” She indicated the shy one first, then the taller, dark-haired one with strikingly blue eyes second.
The two girls both curtsied quickly. They did it with precision, clearly a practiced gesture. “Sir.” They said together.
“And this is Captain Goren of the border guard, recently recalled on the orders of Minister Kalb.” She introduced me in turn.
“It is a pleasure to meet you both.” I said softly, smiling with genuine warmth.
I could smell the kindness on them. They were true friends of Nokomi, and I would treat them as such. With my senses enhanced by Dog, I could often get a scent of people, knowing more about them than even their body language would tell. I could smell lies or mixed truths as easily as I could smell the difference between fear sweat and of the sweat of exertion. There were many things that Dog’s shared senses allowed me to know about people, and these were two that I knew I could trust.
Nokomi knelt to give Dog more attention, which he accepted with great pleasure. He adored her as much as I did, and he was ever one for a good ear scratching. His tongue lolled out happily, and he licked her face. I found myself jealous in that moment, but I knew what her cheek tasted like to Dog through our bond. She’d eaten dates this morning. A tiny bit of sweetness remained on her lips and breath. I suddenly had the urge to eat dates, if only to understand her better.
Nokomi stood and sighed softly. “There is so much to catch up, on, my dear friend, Goren. We must make a point of having tea one day, so we can share stories of the past few years.”
“We must.” I agreed.
Dog yipped, making her laugh. She mussed the fur between his ears and grinned. “You can come, too, Dog.” She glanced up at me, and her eyes indicated that we were being watched.
“How do I…?” I wasn’t sure on the etiquette of meeting the princess and requesting an audience, even if it was just for conversation and a meal. I was suddenly aware of the other faces in the courtyard and on the balconies, many of which had taken note of our meeting. Of course, she’d grown up here, so she knew that her presence would attract attention.
“I’ll set it up. Halina or Lila will deliver the invitation.” Nokomi informed me, suddenly a lot more formal than she had been. Even she had been caught up in the moment.
I got the hint, and I bowed reverently, as was due for someone in my station. “Princess.” Dog grinned up at the two of us.
“Goodbye, Captain Goren.” She put extra emphasis on saying my name, which she’d given me.
I grinned and watched her retreat back toward the arched walkways. Halina cast a questioning glance back at me, her blue eyes curious but cautious. I inclined my head to her and knelt beside dog as they left. That one would definitely want to know more of my story. I imagined that she would have many questions for Nokomi.
I put my forehead against Dog’s muzzle, wrapping my arms around his shoulders. He turned to lick my face. I smiled and inhaled his familiar scent, feeling something I hadn’t felt for a long time.
“We are home.” I said to him at last.
He let out a soft whine of agreement, still staring at the walkway Nokomi had disappeared down.
Returning to the city was a homecoming of sorts. I had no one waiting there for me, no home to return to, and no treasured mementos from my youth. While I had very few fond memories of my life as a child in the city, it was home nonetheless. What I did have, was my memories of Nokomi, but also of a friend, someone who had helped me when I was young.
As badly as I wanted to see Nokomi, there was another that I had to see first.
Adish had been the closest thing I’d ever had to family in my childhood. I found his shop exactly where I remembered it, not far from the market, near the streets where I’d hidden and lived with Dog. The familiar clang of hammers upon heated metal reached my ears before the smell of the forge reached my nose. I found myself grinning with anticipation as I approached. Dog’s steps were excited and quick beside me.
Dog and I stopped and watched for a long moment before going in. The modest shop, which had once only taken up a corner of the building, had spread around the side, now taking up half of the first floor. A tall chimney ran up one side of the building, letting out heat and ash, which had stained the walls on the second and third floors of the neighboring building black with soot.
Large holes had been cut in the walls of the shop, portals where windows would have been in more expensive shops, or places where venting the heat wasn’t such an issue. Here, they just let out the oppressive heat of the forge and let in much-needed light. Heavy wooden shutters attached above the portals could be lowered to cover the shop in case of rain or if the shop was closed, such as on the market days during weekends.
Adish stood over the anvil, pounding on heated metal that his assistant held with tongs. Barked orders let the assistant know when to turn or flip the metal. They had a great rhythm about them, and the assistant was often able to anticipate orders by instinct, having done this many times. They worked with precision, a union that I appreciated as a soldier. In some ways, these two, along with the young boy who worked the bellows, were like a pack.
What surprised me, though it should not have, was that this was not Barid working beside Adish. Barid had been a year or so older than me when I’d started working in the shop. I’d only been good enough to work the bellows for the few weeks, months perhaps, that I’d been there, but Barid had done what this assistant was doing right now. How old would he be now? How long had it been? Eight years? Ten?
Time passes strangely when you’re in the service of the Emperor.
Dog licked my hand, signaling that he was ready to go in. I was as well, so we walked up to the store. We approached, stopping at the main entrance, the one customers would use. The side entrance was for deliveries or workers.
“Just let me put this in the quench.” Adish called over, noticing movement at the door without looking up.
He added a couple more pounds of the hammer to the piece he’d been working on. Then he nodded toward the iron-banded water barrel nearby. His assistant struggled to carry the heavy piece of hot iron over to the water barrel, where he plunged it in. It sizzled satisfactorily. I’d always appreciated that sound.
Adish wiped his hands on a towel he kept at his waist, and started my way. I took a measure of him, grinning widely as our eyes met.
Adish was a large man, broad of shoulders from years of swinging a hammer. You put on muscle working metal, because it was not something that yielded easily to your will. It was not like clay or even wood, which can be easily shaped. It takes heat, muscle, and force to make it do what you will. That is something that both Dog and I understand well.
Adish had aged, certainly, but he did not look old, other than the new wrinkles about his eyes and on his forehead. I could tell that he favored his left shoulder, and he’d probably get a few more years out of his right one before he had to take on a more supervisory position. His eyes were still kind, knowing, and wise. He had a fatherly feel about him, despite my never having known my own. If I ever imagined a father, he always looked like Adish, with his same dark beard, although it was now turning grey at the chin.
His eyes took in me, with recognition slowly dawning across his features as he saw Dog beside me. Suddenly, his steps faltered, and he stumbled toward me, his mouth failing him in forming words.
“Go…” He nearly cried, throwing a giant hug around my shoulders.
We were of a height now, although he was easily broader than I was and ever would be. Where he was broadly built, I was wiry and strong, like the desert hunting dog I called my companion. I clenched him back tightly, taking in his familiar musky scent of iron, smoke, and sweat.
Flashes of my childhood came back to me then, and I smiled, saying his name, “Adish.”
When he pulled away, he laughed and clapped me across the shoulder. “How is it you are here, boy? You and that dog of yours…”
I grinned. “It is a long story, my friend.” My eyes took in the questioning looks from his two assistants.
Adish took my wrist and dragged me to a small sitting area where I remembered eating his wife Sherine’s cooking. He waved the two boys over and we sat together. The boys took to Dog immediately, playing with his round ears and marveling over his mottled coloring. He was certainly not like any dog they’d ever played with, and Dog enjoyed the attention.
As I watched them play, realization set in. “They are your boys.” It was impossible not to see it now. The similarities were undeniable.
“Yes, they are my eldest two children, Jahan and Radwan. They help in in the shop now. Jahan has been learning for a few years, and Radwan has just begun to work the bellows, as you once did.”
I smiled at the memories. “That was some time ago, before everything that happened.” My smile faded. “I didn’t mean to leave as I did. I wasn’t given a choice that day. I was simply taken away.”
“I know.” Adish said sadly.
“Do you?” I thought back. Had Nokomi managed to get word to him? “Then she told you?”
Adish nodded. “Yes, she sent word to me. Apparently, she searched this whole area for everyone named Adish and Barid. It took her some doing, as our names are not uncommon, and she wasn’t allowed back out for several weeks after what happened to you in the Bazaar. Eventually, one of her servant girls found me and told me you had been taken away.”
Dog quirked his head at me. I frowned. Adish deserved the whole story, but what was I allowed to share? Some of the things I’d done were secret, things I could not share. “But you never got the whole story?”
“Oh, but I did, at least what the princess would share.” Adish replied.
“So you met her? Nokomi?”
Adish’s eyebrow rose in wonder. “I would not refer to her so familiarly, but yes. The princess came here. She told me how one of her father’s guards had captured you and taken you away. She also told me how your dog and you had saved her from a desert cat when you were very young, and she’d always felt indebted to you.”
That was one way to put it. Knowing now what I did now about her family’s blood-fire magic, I doubted she had even been seriously in danger, but Dog and I wore the scars of our efforts anyway. My forehead still bore a jagged scar where much of it had been peeled back by the cat’s claws. It had faded, but it was still there. It tingled as I thought about it and her.
“We were taken away to a place to be trained to serve as soldiers. That’s where I have been since then. Dog and I impressed Emperor Baraz that morning years ago. After our training, we were conscripted into his army and have been soldiering on the border territories since then.” I explained. It was true enough, if a simpler version that omitted many important details.
“The life of a soldier is a respectable profession, Go, if a difficult lifestyle. Does it suit you?” Adish asked carefully. He knew I hadn’t been given a choice.
“Well enough, Adish, well enough. However, we are back now! We have bene given new orders that have brought us home, so we wanted to greet you and tell you that we still thought of you after all of this time. Your kindness back then, it meant a lot to both of us.”
Dog yipped in agreement, eliciting a jump and a laugh from Adish’s youngest, Radwan. The dark haired, dark eyed boy favored Sherine, his mother.
“That is good to hear. A familiar face is always welcome, even after years.” He smiled broadly.
“And what of Barid? Where is his familiar face?” I wondered.
Adish put on a proud smile. “That boy, he has much talent. He is a master with a shop of his own now! Your disappearance did us well, not that I would wish it upon you, but the attention of a princess on a humble shop such as this does not hurt!”
“I noticed it was a larger shop now…” I glanced around once more. Adish had prospered. He had always taken care of his tools and shop, but the expansion was not the only show of fortunate times. He had more tools, a new forge, and several other telltale signs of a business doing well.
“Well, after she came here, we set to talking more than once. Sherine joined us when she could. Radwan was so young at the time, and my daughter, Jaleh, was just a babe. The princess took a liking to my wife and children, and she made sure the palace always sent some of its simpler work this way. They always have a need for tools, horseshoes, and the like.”
“That was kind of her.” I imagined Nokomi sitting in this same chair, talking to Adish and his wife. It made me feel closer to her, even though I hadn’t been here to witness it.
“Things like that get noticed. Soon after, we started getting more business from higher clientele. Barid, that boy… he got it in his head that we should start creating pieces that were not just functional, but also decorative. At first, I laughed it off, for a good hammer does not require a delicate leaf pattern upon it, nor does a horseshoe need grapevines along its side, but I indulged him. He had the deft hands and skill to make the intricate designs, so I let him play around.”
“It worked, didn’t it?”
Adish shook his head and laughed. “I found myself swimming in orders. I don’t think I took a day off for nearly a year, unless Sherine forced me to. Barid and I stayed busy for a good while. We prospered, and, while he is gone, I learned something of his methods, and I’ve worked to make my designs both functional and decorative.”
“And where is he now?”
“He runs his own shop across the way.” Adish nodded toward the window and down the street in the direction of the Bazaar. “He works with softer metals now. He never liked the heat and the heavy hammers that much anyway, but his pewter and silver designs are very fashionable. I imagine he’s richer than I am already, despite having only started off on his own a couple years ago. I wish him well. He is a hard-working lad.”
I could hear the pride in his voice. It was good that they were all doing so well. “Things have worked out then, for all of us. I should like to see him again, at some point, if just to say hello. I doubt he much remembers me anyway.”
“Oh, there is not a one of us that forgot your face, Go. You and that mysterious dog of yours, you two are something of a legend around here. That rat-meat seller never forgot you, either!” He laughed deeply, from his belly.
I grinned. My command of language and my understanding of the value of money had both improved a lot since those days. “I’m glad to have made such an impression.”
“You have indeed, Go. I shall have to tell Sherine you visited. She will be delighted to hear of your return. We always wondered… I just know that she would insist on cooking a meal for all of us, Barid included, if you ever have the time to come back down our way.”
“I will make time.” I promised, standing. Dog hopped up beside me, stomach rumbling as he shared my thoughts. Adish’s kindly wife was an excellent cook, and I very much suspected that her meal would help Dog and I forget months of military rations. “For now, I need to get to my post at the palace.”
“The palace, then? You must be a fine soldier indeed.” Adish surmised.
“The best, Adish.” I grinned wolfishly. Dog shared a toothy smile as well.
He gave the both of us a look and nodded seriously. “I don’t doubt it. You have that look about you. You both are much more than you seem on the surface.”
I would not respond to that, but with that, we hugged once more, and then Dog and I made for the door. As we walked off, I could hear Adish telling his boys more about us when they bombarded him with questions, most likely more about Dog than about me. Even having known what Nokomi had told them of our fates, he’d never really got to hear what happened to us after we were taken away. Now he knew that we were well, and I hoped it was a weight lifted off of his shoulders.
We had not been his responsibility, but he had taken us on, and he was the sort that carried those burdens on his heart. Now, he could think of us and be at ease.
My first memories of Nokomi were of her warm eyes, her fine linen clothes, and her feet dirtied by treading in the filthy streets where I lived. They were of a pomegranate shared between us, the quiet peace of listening to her voice, and our comingled blood dripping in that alleyway.
I could never forget our first meeting. I had been nothing more than a street urchin with a wild dog at my side, and she had been a kind, beautiful girl about my age. We’d bonded that day, sharing fruit while she told her stories that we couldn’t understand, and later as we’d fought the desert cat. By accident, her fire-filled blood had worked its way into the wounds that the cat had inflicted upon me; I feel it still in my forehead when my emotions run high. And then Dog had licked my wounds clean and transferred some of that same blood into his own wounds when he cleaned his own torn flesh with his tongue. The three of us had become a pack in that moment, and everything I’d done since then was to get back to her.
That perfect day had ended when soldiers arrived with her father, who I’d later learned was the Emperor. Seeing how I had been covered with blood, they’d made the snap judgement that I had been a threat to the princess. I understand it, but it had made Dog and I part from Nokomi. We’d fled and ran to hide, though it had been like tearing off a limb to separate from ourselves from her.
Years had passed, years with her unnaturally severed from our pack, but always on our minds. I’d learned words, enough to speak at least, and I’d taken to working at the side of a blacksmith, growing more human to better understand Nokomi’s world. We’d done our best at growing and learning until we happened across her once more in the Bazaar, the city’s great market. She had grown and changed as we had, but we knew her immediately. The bond between us had not broken or faded, even if we had been apart.
Our second meeting was one that Dog and I hadn’t been able to escape from. Instead, we’d been taken away as captives to work in the Kennel – a school for special boys like me with an affinity for beasts.
You see, Dog and I were special. We weren’t just a kid and a dog living in the streets together. We were a pack in more than just the social sense. We shared everything, from scents and feelings to food. I could taste what he tasted, feel what he felt, and hear what he heard. We shared pain, the excitement of the hunt, and thoughts. We were two creatures with one soul, and the bond made each of us more than what we would have been alone. There was no truer thing than that.
Without Dog, I would’ve died in those alleys as a small child. Without me, Dog would have been caged and killed in the fighting pits, made to fight animals until he finally lost a match and his life. Together, we survived, grew, and connected to each other on a level that went beyond thought and life.
So it was that the two of us, a wild dog and an even wilder boy of the streets, came to that special school. We changed things there, too. Changes have always swirled about us, intentional or not. We created a single pack out of the dozens of boys and dogs there, taking the splintered pieces and forging them as a whole. After all, that was what the Emperor had wanted, even if it came about differently than he’d expected. It had not been a painless process. We’d lost friends, and I’d had to kill for the first time, feeding the beast side of my nature.
Despite all of that, the Emperor still needed us. He wanted a weapon unlike anything our kingdom or any of our neighboring kingdoms had ever seen, and we gave it to him. We of the Old Blood, men bonded with animals, were a leftover from ages past, before Emperor Baraz and his fire bloods had come and conquered our savage land. With my help, we’d unified the boys and created a special army for him. All I’d done, I’d done in the hope of returning to Nokomi’s side.
I’d taken boys like Legs, the fastest kid and dog I knew, or Killer, a stout and stoic companion, and Sardar, a quiet source of wisdom, and I’d made loyal soldiers of them. Under the guidance of Kalb, the Emperor’s own dog man and the original source of inspiration for this army, I’d done everything asked of me and more, but nothing had carried me back to Nokomi.
I’d taken our regiment out amongst the regular army, blending our beast-like natures until we were nearly indistinguishable from the other soldiers, at least until one of our dogs decided it was time to show our true natures. All it took was one sight of what we could do, and the other soldiers never forgot that we were a breed apart. The illusions were dispelled and the masks were pulled back. It was impossible to unsee one of us in our true form.
With the army, or sometimes in small strike groups formed of our own kind, we’d worked the borders, rooting out insurgents and spies. We’d fought in battles against bandits and would-be invaders. I’d killed with my bare hands and with my teeth, Dog snarling alongside me the whole time. I’d lost allies, pack members that I’d personally trained. I’d seen members of my pack go mad from the loss of their dogs, and dogs refuse to live after the loss of their human companions. Death was a constant companion, like the scent of smoke that worked its way into clothing, never to be completely removed.
Despite all of this, I never got closer to my true goal of being once more beside Nokomi, the Emperor’s daughter and the third true member of my pack. Until now, that was.
After five years of training, teaching, and fighting, after the grueling weeks and months on the road, with all of the dust and sand and blood, I was finally being called back to the capitol. The payoff for all of our hard work was finally here.
Standing in the desert sand away from the tent city of our camp, with the morning wind whipping grit into my face, I reread my latest orders, so fresh that I could smell the fingers that had sealed the wax mingled with the scent of the courier. Dog was there beside me, and he knew what was coming before I even spoke to him. He knew my thoughts and could feel my exultation.
“We’re going back, Dog.” I said contentedly, and the weight of the years of service fell from me as I scratched between Dog’s ears. “Home.”
He barked and thumped his tail on the sand, turning his head in the direction of the city, even though it was several days’ travel away. We always knew where Nokomi was, and I suspected that she could feel the same.
We were pack, after all.
When the Emperor left the next day, Kalb remained. He set to reordering the school, and, as promised, he involved me. We were creating something better, a place where we would all learn. I would teach these others to harness their own beasts.
Tiny and Bear were put off in a wing on their own. Once or twice, we caught glimpses of them, or we’d hear about how they were going for walks beyond the wall, walking or hunting together. They seemed like they might make it. It was still touch and go, but we had hope.
I’d come a long way. I’d started as a street boy with nothing but a dog. Now I had a whole pack. And, more importantly, I had a girl to get back to. Now that the Emperor knew of my bond with her, surely he would set me as her guard.
But first, I had to become the best version of myself. Dog would help me. Then our true pack would be reunited. It didn’t matter how long it would take. We would be together again.
We were pack.
It was eerily silent in the gallery, despite the presence of more people than I knew how to count. All thirty of the Emperor’s guards were there. Nearly as many auburn guards were there as well. Our four instructors were there, standing behind the Emperor and Kalb. They all faced us from the south side of the gallery as we were led out.
The whole of Pack Sefr came out from the north wing. We lined up in unity for the first time, each with a dog beside them, all of us except for Tiny, who stood only because Killer and Legs supported him where he stood. I was located in the middle of our group, standing directly opposed to the Emperor.
The whole place was lit with torch light. Some of the torches spat and hissed, still snapping from being recently lit. The smoke huddled in the still air, much of it not rising enough to be blown away up and over the roof. The haze lent to the strange air of severity on the sand.
“Bring out the accused.” The Emperor ordered.
Gates opened to permit Drum, who staggered and stumbled until he had to be carried by two guards. They threw him in a heap halfway between the Emperor and me. He was a mess – unwashed, unfed, and uncaring. He’d already given up on life. Bear was strangely absent, perhaps as a mercy to the animal. He would not have to witness his master’s death, not that he would feel it any less.
“Deliver the sentence to the prisoner.” The Emperor ordered.
I cleared my throat, suddenly finding it hard to speak. I’d never had to kill anyone before, let alone announce his death in front of such a crowd. One glance at Tiny gave me the strength I needed to continue.
“Drum is guilty of killing one of us. He is responsible for the death of Little Dog.” I announced. Dog lent me strength as well, standing tall beside me as I delivered the sentence.
Drum laughed and cried at once. “I am guilty.” He sobbed. “Kill me and be done with it.”
The Emperor drew his sword and handed it to Kalb. “This justice is administered in accordance with my will. Let it be done.”
“Wait!” Drum shouted, wheeling around to look at us all. His eyes were blurry and feverish. His chains rattled on his feet and ankles.
The Emperor froze, his sword still held out for Kalb’s waiting hands. “Speak.”
“What of my dog? What of Bear?” Drum asked.
“He will be allowed to live. If it is his will to live on, he may bond with another.” The Emperor explained.
Drum nodded sadly. “Thank you.” He managed to croak.
“The instrument of my justice.” The Emperor continued, letting Kalb take his blade this time.
Kalb carried it over to me, with Teeth following at his heels. Dog tensed beside me, as if this were wrong. I held out my hands anyway, taking the blade when it was offered.
I stared at the blade. It felt alien in my hands. Wrong. It was a finely-crafted blade, worth more than anything I’d ever touched, but it wasn’t right. I looked at Dog. He looked at me. He seemed to shake his head, but that was a very human description for the senses I felt coming from him.
“Emperor, if I might?” This had to be done right.
“What is it you require, executioner?” The Emperor asked a little impatiently. He was used to his will being carried out promptly when he asked.
“Drum is one of us, as much dog as human.” I explained. “If I might? Could I kill him in the manner of our kind? He is chained and being executed with a weapon. Should he not be killed while unbound, free in death if not life? And should I not kill him with my bare hands?”
At this, even some of the Emperor’s guards shifted uneasily. The Emperor looked dumbfounded. “The sword offers a clean death. It is merciful. What you suggest is crueler, is it not?” The Emperor looked to his advisor. “Kalb?”
Kalb looked at me, both surprised and a little afraid. “If it is their way?”
“Shall we ask Drum?” I suggested.
The Emperor looked uncomfortable at this, but asked anyway. “Drum. You have heard your options. Will you be executed unchained, falling under the hands of this man, or do you want to be put down quickly with my own blade?”
Drum looked up at me, his eyes focusing, if just for a moment. His eyes went to the sword, then back to me. “Kill me like a dog. Kill me with your own claws and teeth.”
It felt right. I looked to the Emperor for permission. He nodded, so I handed the sword back to Kalb. With a flick of the Emperor’s hands, the auburn guards unchained Drum and backed away quickly. Yet if they expected him to attack or attempt to flee, they were disappointed.
Drum made no move to escape. Instead, he rubbed his wrists and settled onto his knees on the sand. He looked up to me. “Do it.”
I nodded and looked to Dog. Dog tensed beside me, knowing what was coming next.
It started as a tingle along my scalp, a burning that spread through my body. The hairs on my neck stood up. I felt pain in my fingertips as my nails elongated. My face began to ache, and I felt my features distort into a half muzzle. My eyes blurred and then came into incredible focus. My muscles tightened like steel wires strung taut across my bones.
Kalb stiffened beside me. Perhaps he’d never seen someone else do what he could. I glanced at him, seeing myself mirrored in his eyes. His eyes glowed yellow, as if just seeing me change was a contagious thing that he was just barely holding back. At his side, Teeth stood apprehensively, cowed by my presence.
The Emperor stood stock still, his jaw clenched tight. I saw him nod, but the smell of fear coming from around the gallery was terribly sweet. Few had seen a man come so close to beast before, perhaps not even the Emperor himself.
I took a step over to Drum, who lifted his chin, offering his neck for slicing. He looked up suddenly, meeting my beastly gaze. “Take care of Bear.” He whispered.
Then I tore out his throat. My claws ripped through his flesh with ease. His shredded voice box bubbled and whistled. His eyes bulged, and he hit the ground, bleeding out into the sand.
As he gasped his last, I threw my head back and howled. A chorus of barks and howls erupted from the gallery: all of Pack Sefr and Kalb as well. Dogs and boys, we made an awful racket in the still night.
Distantly, I felt something in that moment, a connection. Had Nokomi felt me? Had I felt her?
When it was over, I bowed to the Emperor, and then I bowed once more to my pack. They returned the bow.
I let go of the beast, for now.
Someday soon, I would need it again, and I would call it.
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.
The nine of us gathered around: the leaders of Yek, Se, Do, and Chahar with all five members of Panj, even if Tiny was in a fitful sleep. Many of the other members of the packs gathered in the hallway to hear. They huddled together quietly to listen, reminding me of a crowd watching a game of stones, only much quieter.
We all looked to the nondescript boy from Yek with a bit of surprise, since they never did much alone. For some reason, he’d been chosen to represent Pack Yek. He introduced himself as Sardar, which was also a surprise. It sounded like a birth name, while we all had nicknames. Most of us shared the nicknames with our dogs, while some of us, like myself, also had names for our dogs. The first pack was different in many ways, but they had been here much longer than any of us.
“We all know why we’re here.” I began. I’d brought all this about, so they would look to me to lead the discussion. “We must decide a fate for Drum and his dog, Bear. Whatever we decide, we must decide together, so that the Emperor and his advisor, who you know as Yellow-Eyes, will agree.”
“You already have a decision made? You’ve decided amongst your pack?” Scar inquired. He spoke slowly, enunciating carefully. With the scars around his mouth, it was difficult for him to speak quickly.
I looked to my fellows, and they nodded to me. I grasped Tiny’s hand as he slept. “Yes. We will demand that Drum is executed for killing our pack member’s dog.”
Scar’s mouth twisted in a wry smile. “I do not like him. I never have. He was insufferable even before you came here. Then you all pushed him to a point where he had no choice. Now he gets to die for it.”
“So you are against us getting our vengeance for L.D.’s murder?” Killer demanded hotly. His body tensed angrily. His dog lifted its head, flashing its large canines.
Scar shook his head and laughed. “No. If he must die, then he must die. I only wanted to lay the blame where it needed to be. You all are not innocent in this, so think upon that before you easily decide to execute someone.”
Legs stood up and pointed a finger at the others. He ignored Scar’s dog baring teeth at his accusing finger. He had something he had to say. “Maybe you all shouldn’t have created such a hostile culture. You had months and years to make this place what you would, and you want to blame us? We’re the victims here. You all created him.”
This incident had certainly given Legs something of a spine. Weeks ago, he’d not have looked any of these boys in the eyes. Now he was berating the whole group. I let him say his piece and kept my expression neutral.
Bull nodded, looking abashed. “It is how they made this place. They demanded that we compete like animals. We could have been building each other up, like brothers. We let this come to this point, and we did nothing to stop it. You are right.”
“So we are all to blame, the instructors, us, and you all.” Scar admitted. Then, almost reluctantly, as if he didn’t know he could trust us, he added, “Even the Emperor is responsible, in his own way.”
“Yes. Let us all share the blame, but Panj will gladly shoulder all of the burden of punishing him.” I declared.
“You will do it yourself?” Sardar asked. The boy with the white dog calmly stroked his dog, as if he were discussing the weather and not the execution of one of our own.
“I will.” I’d already decided this. I owed it to Tiny. I owed it to L.D. Dog was with me on this.
“So it’s decided? Drum is to die? Is there any opposed to murdering one of our own?” Mongrel asked. He certainly had no reason to love Drum. His dog still limped from Bear’s attack. Yet, he still seemed heavy-hearted about the decision.
No one opened their mouth. There were silent headshakes or still expressions, but no one was against it. There were murmurs in the hallway, but no one raised their voice to be heard.
“I have a concern.” Sardar announced. “It is not about Drum. He is mad… brain sick. I do not believe he can be saved. My concern is for his beast. What will you do with Bear? Will you kill him as well?”
No one answered that, not even me. In my mind, Drum was the one who gave the order, but Bear was the one who had murdered L.D. Could we spare the dog that did the deed if we executed the master for ordering the crime?
Sardar smiled sadly. “How will it be for that dog? We may not love Drum, but his dog? Is it Bear’s fault that his master was bred for cruelty?”
“The dog will want to die with his master.” Scar suggested, his dark features doing their best to frown. It was a half-frown at most.
“What can we do with him? Is there any option but putting him down?” I wondered aloud. I was honestly curious.
“I think Scar is right.” Mongrel said. “I felt the pain from my dog, and he was much nearer to death than I’d like to think. He survived, but I know how it would have affected me if he had died. I imagine it is the same way for a dog to lose a master, when you’re one of us.”
“It would be cruel to let him live. He should die with his master.” Scar was adamant about this.
“But what if?” Sardar began.
We all turned to see how that might end. Did he know something we did not?
“Yes?” I prompted, when he didn’t finish that statement.
“Pack Yek has been here longer than any of you, a year longer as a group, but I was the first. I was here before them all.”
Bull looked surprised. This was news to him as well. “You were? How long have you been here?”
“Six years.” Sardar answered.
Silence. We all just looked at each other in wonder. Most of Pack Do, from what little I’d heard before, had only been here a year or two. Pack Yek was supposedly first, but I’d guessed only two to three years at most. Six years was a very long time to be in this place, a lifetime. Dog tensed beside me, as if imagining a lifetime in this place. It was not a pleasant thought.
“It wasn’t always like this.” Sardar explained. “In the beginning, it was only me, and I was treated as a student, a guest even. Then they began to find others. As they did, they built this place up, changing it into this military camp, rather than the school it had once been.”
He paused to pet his dog. “In those early days, it was just me, but they continued to hunt. Yellow-Eyes found more. He brought a girl here and another boy as well.”
“A girl was here?” Scar looked shocked by this idea.
I, too, couldn’t believe it. None of us could. I’d never even heard of a girl with the Old Blood, not that it didn’t make sense. We’d just never seen one. How would that be, though? It was already hard enough with all of us boys, competing and fighting. What would we do if there was a girl to compete for as well? Would she rule us all as we fought for her favor, or would we kill each other to possess her?
Sardar continued his story. “It was just us three for several months, but then there was an accident. Or maybe it wasn’t an accident. No matter the cause, the girl died, leaving her dog behind. The dog was mad with loss. In the manner of beasts, he refused to eat, and was waiting to die.”
“Now I was angry at her death. I blamed the other boy, rightfully so, I believe. In a fit of rage, I attacked him. My dog was killed while I killed the boy.” Sardar looked around at us, letting his story sink in. He flipped over his white dog’s ear, petting the soft, downy fur of the white dog’s ears.
“I felt like I might die. I wanted to, honestly.” Sardar’s faced was shadowed with the painful memories, but that look vanished after a moment, to be replaced with a smile. “This dog also wanted to die, but one day, something changed. I felt the same sort of pain in this dog as I felt inside. We had that pain in common. It was a start. It was what we both needed. We bonded, dog and boy, and we survived.”
We all froze. Never would we have believed that he was on his second dog, that this was a second bond. None of us had even known it was possible. What did that mean for Tiny? Was it possible? The room held their collective breath as we waited for him to continue. Dogs shifted nervously, but the boys remained stone still.
“Without a dog, Tiny will die.” Sardar said definitively. “He will lose the will to survive. Bear will do the same when Drum dies. They could try to bond. Only, I don’t know if they would be a match. I don’t know if they could forgive each other and learn to live together. They may be too different.”
“Or they might be just what each other needs, like with your story.” I offered.
“Maybe.” Sardar smiled softly, rising to his feet. “No matter what, I will support your decision. Pack Yek is behind you completely. But, if you want your friend to survive, I think there is only one possible course of action. It would not be easy, and they would require a long time together, alone and in each other’s company, but they might bond.”
He left without another word, his foster dog at his side. He was living proof that someone could survive losing a dog, but only if there was another one to bond with. Is that would Tiny would want? His hand tightened imperceptibly in mine, as if he’d heard the story and understood. I hoped it was so.
“We are all in agreement then?” I released Tiny’s hand and stood. Dog stood beside me. “Drum is to die. Tiny is to be given a chance to bond with Bear, if they will tolerate the match.”
“Pack Do agrees.” Scar answered quickly.
“Pack Se agrees.” Bull nodded.
“Pack Chahar agrees.” Mongrel said reluctantly. He hated Drum, but he’d known him best. It was hard to say goodbye, but it was what needed to be done.
“Pack Yek’s vote is with me, so we are all in agreement. I will take the news to the Emperor.” I hesitated, knowing this would not be enough. “When this is all done, we need to be done with these packs. They will only cause division. This tragedy could happen again.”
“What do you suggest then?” Scar asked.
“A new pack.” Killer suggested, smiling. He knew where I was going with this, even if I hadn’t discussed it with him.
“I thought you said do away with packs!” Scar protested. He didn’t seem to like the idea of losing his pack, but he had to know that Fire was practically a member of our pack now anyway, reducing his own group to three. That was hardly a pack.
“We are no longer Yek, Do, Se, Chahar, and Panj.” I said the words, smiling at Face, Killer, Legs, and Tiny’s prone form. “From now on, we are all Pack Sefr. We will use the name to honor the sacrifices made today. From now on, all of us are together, or we are nothing.”
“Pack Sefr.” Bull agreed. “All or nothing.”
“Pack Sefr.” Mongrel declared, effectively abdicating from his very short reign as leader of Chahar. He hadn’t really liked ruling anyway.
Scar looked at us all as if we were crazy, shaking his head. “Pack Sefr it is then.”
Bull stood to bark and bow to me. The others quickly did the same. I heard more barks from the hallway. The observers had agreed, including what was left of Pack Yek.
We would kill one of our own in hopes of healing one of our own. Then we would be whole again, as we had never been before.
“My dog!” Tiny jolted awake, gasping for air, reaching for something that wasn’t there.
I grasped his hands, and his glazed eyes sought out mine, only focusing with effort. “I’m here, Tiny We’re all here.”
Tiny’s eyes swam as he tried to look around our room. He acted as one drunk, or one who’d been struck severely upon the head. He was dazed, not quite right. I imagine that nothing smelled, looked, or sounded right. He’d spent his life sharing the senses of a dog, and now he was limited to human senses. It was like losing half of yourself, and that didn’t even account for the pain of losing L.D.
“Little Dog…” He whispered, grimacing and putting his head back down.
“Dead.” I said softly. There was no use lying to him. There were no words that could hide what had happened.
Tiny nodded, tears running from eyes squeezed shut. He writhed in agony, as if we’d twisted a knife in his heart. “Drum.” He could barely say the name.
I nodded. “Yes, he did this. We have to do something.”
“Kill him.” Tiny begged, looking at me through red, tear-streaked eyes.
“I will.” I vowed. Even if no one else would, I would take the blame for it. I would seek out Drum’s death, no matter the cost to myself.
Dog twitched his ears at me and nosed my arm. Then, he got up and settled in against Tiny, as if he could be a stand-in for L.D. Tiny’s hands clutched at Dog’s fur, and he seemed to relax. At that, Tiny rested his head back down and fell back into something that was not sleep. It was more like the rest of one near death, one whose body knew it was best to try to heal, and that could not be done if he was awake.
I looked to Killer, Face, and Legs. They were the other members of our pack. We stood together. How could we not give our wounded friend what he wanted? “We need to kill him.” I said, asking any of them to disagree, but knowing they would not.
It eased my heart when I found no such look upon their faces. Instead, they all clutched their dogs closely, imagining that it could have very well been them instead of Tiny that was suffering this fate. We sat in our dim room, huddled around our half-dead friend, and there was no escaping the horrible thing that had happened to him.
“If it were any of us, we’d want the same, right?” I asked, and they all nodded soberly.
“How do we convince the rest of them?” Legs asked. “We said we’d get everyone to approve. Otherwise, even if we want Drum dead, it won’t matter.”
“Drum wants himself dead. He has lost everything. He is ready to die. He will find a way, no matter what we do.” I surmised. “That is why he did this. He only needed a target, and Tiny was the closest or easiest one.”
“Why couldn’t he just have attacked the Emperor? Those guards would have killed him before he hurt anyone but himself.” Face shook his head, his forehead wrinkling in consternation.
“We can wish a thousand things, but it won’t change what has already happened.” Killer replied curtly. He was not one to mince words. “We will make them all see what needs to be done.”
Killer let his words sink in. Then, to me, he said, “It is your time to lead. You must make them see. You must make them agree.”
I knew he was right. This was my time to pull them all together. I had to forge them into one pack. “Call them, then, my friends. We need at least one person from each pack.” I looked to each of them and gave them their assignments, “Face, you can go get Mongrel from Chahar. Legs, go get Bull from Se. Killer, you can go get Scar from Do. Then, you can all go get someone or everyone from Yek.”
“And what about Yellow-Eyes or the Emperor? They need to be here, don’t they?” Legs asked.
I shook my head. “Not yet. They will be, but I would like to show them what we all decide. I don’t want them hearing our decision until it’s final. You heard what the Emperor said. He needs to see us come together and be united in this. Otherwise… I don’t know what will become of us.”
They nodded, leaving me with Tiny. They went off down the halls to gather the representatives from the other packs. They would see firsthand what was left of Tiny. Then they would agree to letting me execute Drum.
They had to see it my way.
I snarled and leaped over Tiny, putting myself between Bear and my prone friend. His dog might be dead, but I would not let any more harm come to him. Dog snapped and barked at Bear, who held his head low, drooling and rheumy eyed.
A few of the auburn guards broke decorum first, letting swords fly in the presence of the Emperor as they closed on Bear and Drum. This set off a chain reaction of weapons coming out. The Emperor’s own sword remained sheathed on his hip, but all of his soldiers had their weapons out and had closed around him in just moments. Spears and pairs of swords bristled around the Emperor like a hedgehog.
Our instructors were yelling for calm and trying to get their guards to stand down, but the auburn guards were terrified now, with the Emperor’s guards all showing steel and some of them still standing unarmed. Most of them had reluctantly drawn their weapons as well, but they had not moved from their posts around us. Things were just a misstep or two from becoming a bloodbath.
“Stand down!” The Emperor bellowed. He had a voice that carried commands well. He was a natural leader. I could not smell even a single hint of fear on him, and his soldiers were nearly as good.
While his command might have worked for humans, it put all of the dogs on edge. Already, all of Panj was spoiling for a fight. We were out for blood, and Bull’s Pack Se was ready to follow us. What was left of Chahar stood in shock. Scar was looking around nervously, arms spread in a crouch, huddled beside his black attack dog. He and the rest of Pack Do were ready to fight anyone that came too close. Of all of us, Pack Yek was the only one to remain calm and keep their dogs from barking or scrambling around.
Panj had Drum and Bear half surrounded, backed against a row of auburn guard spears, spears that wavered after being told to stand down. Dogs snarled and barked at each other, dozens of bared teeth flashing and ready for violence.
My muscles bulked up, ready to explode into action, but Kalb barked. His bark was a resounding echo of a noise, all from a deformed mouth that was somewhere between human and canine. He and Teeth parted the Emperor’s guards, and he came to face us, Old Yellow-Eyes.
“Go!” He shouted. “Drum!”
I tilted my head at him. I was still crouched over Tiny’s body, with Little Dog’s still form beside my feet. “This cannot stand, Kalb!” I shouted back at him. “He killed one of ours!”
My neck bristled, and my fingernails ached as the elongated. I could feel my eyes flash yellow back at him. My muscles were tight like a bowstring, ready to release me as a deadly arrow.
Drum laughed. “Go, it is you we cannot stand! You have ruined this place!”
Kalb stepped over to Bear, who snarled and showed his teeth. When Kalb did not back down, but snarled back instead, Bear bowed his head in fear of the superior foe that Kalb presented. “Stand down, Drum. That is the order of your Emperor.”
“What is he to me, beyond a statue? What is he to any of us?” Drum cried. Tears streamed down his face. “He’s a face we are taught to respect… and why? He tore us from our homes. He put us in this cursed place!”
“I did put you here.” The Emperor admitted, parting his guards and coming to stand beside Kalb and Teeth. He stared unflinchingly at the broken boy. “I did all of that. I did it because I have need of you all.”
“What of our needs!” Drum protested. “Have you given a thought to those?”
The Emperor’s hand rested on his sword hilt, but he made no move to draw it. He looked at Kalb beside him, a dog in the general guise of a man, not fully human in appearance or soul. “My needs outweigh yours.”
“Why?” It was a half whine and half screech that left Drum’s angry mouth.
“Because I am the Emperor. I have responsibilities to all of the people in this land. You all will help me carry them out. You will help me make this a better land.”
It wasn’t a practiced speech, but it rang true. Perhaps that was why it rang true. The Emperor truly believed what he said. I could hear it in his voice. We’d all have been able to hear lies if he spoke them. Still, believing him and doing what he required were two very different things.
“But what if there is no place left in this land for us when you are done?”
“Then I have failed in my oath to uphold this land.” The Emperor answered.
“What he’s done cannot be forgiven.” I hissed, ignoring attempts from our instructors to silence me.
At this, our instructors cast apologies at the Emperor, bowing obsequiously, but he was unconcerned with their words. He was entirely focused on Kalb, Drum, and I.
Kalb regarded me coldly with his burning yellow eyes. “The Emperor will decide what can be forgiven and what cannot.”
I shook my head. “There is no place left in here for him. He will never be accepted again.”
“He’s right.” Drum admitted. “I have no place at all. I have no life left. All I have is my anger. My hate. All I could do is share it with them.” Drum tilted his head back at an odd angle, smiling at the sky.
The Emperor watched this exchange with a growing frown. “This is an awful display, Kalb.” His eyes turned to the painful sight of Little Dog’s still body in the sand beside his master. “What a waste of potential. Are these beasts truly here to learn serve me? Can they?”
Bull approached then, holding up his hands to show he was unarmed. “We are not all like him, Emperor. We have order among us. We are pack. I do not want to think that any of us is too far gone, but Drum is sick. He is a mad beast that should be put down. You do not keep sick animals with the healthy ones, or they can all go bad...”
The Emperor’s mouth twisted. He chewed his inner lip as he considered these words. “Kalb, what would you have us do?”
Kalb cleared his throat before he spoke. “This is a delicate matter. We are at a turning point in the training. Drum knows too much to let go, but he is no longer welcome here.”
“With all respect, this is a pack matter now.” I held my chin up and dared the Emperor to disagree. It might not have been a wise choice, but I made it anyway. I owed Tiny that much.
“A pack matter?” The Emperor snorted. “What does that mean?”
“If your child misbehaves, do you allow another to punish her, or do you punish her yourself? That is what I mean. He is one of us, and this is a pack matter. We must be allowed to decide for ourselves what punishment best suits him. This is not for our instructors, not this school, and, respectfully, not for you, Emperor, to decide.”
Grey looked as if I’d just struck him in the gut. He went white with fear and bowed as he shouted out an apology on my behalf, “Your excellency, I must apologize for this one! He is one of our newest recruits, and he has been slow to grasp his lessons on etiquette, and he does not yet grasp the chain of command or the more central fundamentals of soldiering!”
The Emperor’s eyebrow rose. “Yet I understand he is one of your more capable fighters.”
“He is, excellency.” Grey admitted, keeping his head low.
The Emperor turned to square his shoulders at me. “What would this pack justice entail?”
“It would fall upon our pack, as the injured pack, as well as Pack Chahar, his former pack, to decide.” I suggested. I’d not really thought that far ahead.
“And any decision would have to be agreed on by all of the packs as a collective, Emperor...” Bull suggested.
“Curious.” He turned to Kalb. “We shall see this done, this strange version of military justice. I will be staying in the quarters here until this justice is seen to. Keep me apprised of the situation. I would be present when any sentence and justice is handed out.”
The Emperor waved off his guards, who sheathed their weapons smoothly and fell back to follow him across the sand toward the south gates. He paused briefly, looking across the statues of himself and his family. I couldn’t be certain, but it almost seemed as if his gaze rested longest on the statue of Nokomi, his favorited daughter.
Abruptly, the Emperor turned back and announced, “I leave this matter in your hands, Go. Choose wisely in this grave situation. An ill choice here could mean the end of this place, but a wise choice could see you all at the center of my plans.”
With that, he vanished, leaving Kalb to glare at us for a moment longer before he, too, left, likely to confer with the Emperor. I had no doubt that he would be back. His dog, Teeth, barked at the whole lot of us twice, looking disapprovingly at what had befallen Tiny and Little Dog. He left as well, heavy paws taking him across the sand to the south gates.
Our instructors, Blue, Red, Grey, and Green fell upon us then, forcing us all back into our north wing with their curses, orders, and general disapproval. They made as if to have the auburn guards move Tiny, but Dog and I snarled and snapped at them. Panj carried their own.
Killer and the others took Tiny in their arms, while I cradled the wreckage of Little Dog in my two hands. He looked ever so small, a sad, broken caricature of what he had been in life. My hands and heart ached as I carried him, knowing I would never see those tiny teeth flash again, stabbing at my fingers when we played.
Panj took Tiny and Little Dog back to our room while a detachment of the auburn guards escorted Bear and Drum. Those two had given up any shred of resistance and followed lamely, doing as they were told for once. They would await their sentence in a cell, likely the one he’d been in just weeks before.
The gates to the north wing slammed shut behind us, but a detachment of guards waited in the halls, and we could hear our instructors arguing behind the gates.
There were decisions to be made.
Mongrel’s mutt recovered, but limped still. I suspected there was a break, but it would heal. Mongrel knew his animal best. He spent the better part of a week resting, skipping classes to stay in an almost constant state of meditation. His whole reduced pack sat with him in the evenings. Even Pack Yek sat with them one night, making a second circle that surrounded the four members of Chahar as they watched over the wounded dog. I’m not certain that it helped, but they kept Mongrel fed and focused on getting better.
I knew what it was to share pain with my animal. Dog and I had both been hurt before, and the healing always went fastest when we both experienced it. It is nearly impossible to fully explain the sensation with one who has not bonded with another in the same way. Perhaps a parent knows what it is to watch a child suffer, to want to take on some of their pain. But what if they really could? That is what it is for us of the Old Blood.
For days and weeks, Drum was a festering sore on our collective hides. He remained bitterly alone, although he attended classes with Chahar. He was clearly apart from them, but he had nowhere else to go, and the instructors seemed dumbfounded by the changes, however warranted.
They had no procedures for a lone student, one shunned by his pack and shut out from socializing with the other packs. It wasn’t what was supposed to happen, so they went on as if nothing was wrong, and that did nothing to deal with the problem. Drum grew more bitter, more withdrawn. Bear snapped at everyone.
They began feeding him alone, but it had been quite the conversation the first night when meal time came. They’d sent for Green, who had demanded to know what was going on. No one would say anything about the ostracized former leader of Chahar. Green even cast his accusing eyes at me, but he relented when my whole pack defended me.
In the end, they’d started sending a sixth basket of food, a small one, with Drum and Bear’s food in it. He’d become Pack Sefr without intending to do so. The nickname stuck, even when they went to classes. The other boys would always joke about having to battle against Pack Sefr, but as vicious as Drum was becoming, no one really wanted to do it.
It was into this mess that the Emperor walked. He came for an unannounced inspection. We didn’t know what was going on. We just knew that we were all woken up early one morning by Grey and we were told to put on our dress uniforms and gather in the gallery.
“What’s going on?” Everyone asked at once.
“The Emperor is here!” Grey hissed. “He’s trying to see how his investment has paid off. You all need to be dressed and presentable in fifteen minutes. Make it happen.” He clapped, setting off a commotion of dressing, washing, and shoe-tying.
We all hurried to the bathroom to wash up, comb our hair with our fingers, pee, and get ourselves presentable, all of us except Drum. The energy was palpable. It was like preparing for war, a war against being found lacking.
Back in our rooms, we struggled with tying shoes. Killer was the best at it. His thick fingers were surprisingly nimble. He tied my shoes and everyone else’s in the room. We looked each other over, straightening collars and hair for each. I imagine that all of our preening was pathetic compared to what real soldiers would have done, but we did our best.
Before we were really ready, we were led out into the gallery. We fell into ranks by pack, arranging ourselves in order of experience, with Yek at one end and our pack at the other.
The sun was morning sun was just creeping up over the horizon, threatening to spill its light over the second floor walls of the gallery. The air was humid, but chilly, and the ground was damp with the morning dew. We fidgeted under the watchful gaze of our three instructors: Red, Blue, and Grey. They seemed as nervous as we were. Green was nowhere to be seen.
Grey gave us a few reminders as we awaited our inspections. “Remember, you are servants of the Emperor. Display yourselves as worthy of his attention, but remember your manners! You will not speak to him unless spoken to. You will answer any and every question quickly and fully.”
Red’s pep talk followed Grey’s. “Display yourselves as soldiers. Stand tall. Stand proud!” He paced up and down our row, fixing collars, straightening shirts, and demanding that no fewer than three pairs of shoes were retied properly. He made several sit their dogs at attention. According to him, dogs were not to laze about in the presence of the Emperor.
I smiled at this. Did they not understand animals? Dogs lazed about most of the day. It was in their natures. They stood at attention for a reason and quickly became relaxed when there was a lack of a reason.
Blue had no words. He merely eyed the whole lot of us critically. He was as quiet and serious as the auburn guards, all of which seemed to be present and on the grounds. The auburn guards nervously shifted their stances, slight twitches that would have been unnoticeable to some without such sharp senses as we had.
We stood in that humid morning air, smelling breakfast being cooked somewhere in the south wing. More than one stomach growled. Tiny laughed, but quickly quieted once more when Blue’s gaze shifted his way.
Eventually, the south gates opened, permitting a troop of no less than a score of armored soldiers. They fanned out, ten going each way. These were professional killers, and they were attired as such. They moved with predatory grace that exhibited their obvious skill.
They wore spiked helmets, with chainmail draping down over their shoulders and neck. Nose guards from the helmets and red scarf across the face obscured all but the soldiers’ eyes. Their armor was layers of leather and scales, with the scales set more heavily into the chest and shoulders of their armor. Layered leather skirting protected their hips and thighs. Some of them wore vambraces over their wrists. Those ones carried bronze-tipped throwing spears, with several extra spears holstered across their backs. The others wore heavy gloves and carried pairs of curved swords, one at each hip.
Clearly, this show of force was to dissuade any of us, like me, from challenging the Emperor as I had defied Green just a few weeks back. The Emperor entered with Green on his left and Kalb on his right. Another ten soldiers followed him in. From watching them, I knew that in moments, the three groups could fold in and create a deadly triangle around their Emperor, one that our concerted effort would likely not succeed in breaking.
The Emperor was much as I recalled – exactly like his statue, if smaller. The statue was, of course, far beyond human scale, probably double his actual size. He wore his conical head wrap and his layered coats and wide pants. Belted over his gilded coat was that same curved blade I remembered from the day I met Nokomi.
I craned my neck, hoping beyond all reason that the Emperor had brought his daughter with him on this inspection. But why would he? Why would he bring her to this secret school full of dogs and boys? There was no hint of her scent on the wind.
The Emperor strode out to five long paces in front of us and regarded us all with his shrewd gaze. “This is what I am spending so much money on? This rabble of dogs and underfed boys?”
Kalb laughed. “Was I not also an underfed boy when we met? Have I not proven my worth, Majesty?”
The Emperor’s face crinkled into a smile. “Very true, old friend.” He clapped Kalb across the shoulder. Then he reached down and rubbed Teeth between the ears. Teeth’s tongue lolled out happily.
Tiny and I exchanged gazes. Blue’s hawk eyes swiveled our way again. We snapped back to attention.
The Emperor paced the length of our class, from Yek to Panj, and back again. He stopped here and there, inquiring about breeds of specific dogs. On his way past our pack, he locked eyes with me for a moment and looked as if he might say something.
Instead, the Emperor turned to Tiny and smiled. “That is quite a small animal beside you. What is his name?”
L.D. growled, baring all of his small teeth at the Emperor, shocking Grey, but eliciting a laugh from the Emperor. Tiny sketched a clumsy bow and did his best to answer. “L.D., Emperor. His name is L.D., for Little Dog.”
“Fierce, isn’t he?” The Emperor favored both dog and boy with a warm smile.
“I think he likes you, Sir.” Tiny suggested. L.D. seemed to comply with a bug-eyed snarl.
The Emperor laughed aloud, a deep belly laugh. “I’d hate to see what he’d do if he didn’t like me.”
“Would you now, your highness?” A voice drawled.
We all turned to the source of the voice, finding Drum strolling out from the north gates with his beast of a dog, Bear. Guards all through the gallery put hands to weapons, but none drew. They would not, not without orders.
“Who is this one?” The Emperor inquired, curious about the one who walked out when he pleased and spoke when not spoken to.
“That one is Drum.” Green said, matter-of-factly. His voice was tight, and his expression most severe. He nearly waved the auburn guards to surround them, but the Emperor held up his hand to stop any such thing from happening.
“Ahh, so this is the one who despoiled my daughter’s statue.” The Emperor looked Drum over appraisingly, his eyes lingering longest on the beast beside him.
Drum looked surprised that the Emperor had heard of his exploits, but he didn’t seem to care. He’d shown up in his street rags, refusing to put on the uniforms as we all had. He went barefoot, true to himself. His dog, every massive pound of him, bristled at the guards.
I had a sick feeling in my stomach as Drum sidled up just beyond us to join the line, putting himself in the sixth position, as a group of one, rather than trying to retake his place with Chahar. He truly was showing himself to be Pack Sefr. Bear did not sit. He stood, swiveling his large head back and forth, growling at everyone.
“So you’ve heard about that?” Drum laughed. “We’re all dogs here.”
The Emperor favored him with a hard stare, but Drum’s fevered eyes were wild and unfocused. He didn’t wilt under that gaze as he might have once. “We piss on things, my Emperor. It’s what we do.”
“It’s what you do.” Tiny muttered just loud enough for everyone to hear. L.D. yipped in agreement.
“Yes. Making messes. It’s what we do.” Drum smiled sickly, turning to Tiny. He signaled to Bear, and the massive dog surged over, snapping L.D. up in his jaws. It was all of two steps for him. No one could have stopped him.
With a quick wet crunch, it was all over. L.D. was dead. Bear spat Tiny’s fierce little dog onto the sand. Broken. Lifeless.
Tiny dropped to his knees as if shot in the heart, going white in the face. A scream died in his throat, ending as a gurgle. His eyes rolled back in his head and he fainted right out, hitting the sand as if he’d been struck dead.
I felt a howl in the back of my throat, and everything started to happen all at once…
We had a week of peace, and most everyone got along. Scar was easily the most difficult person left in our wing, but he was only openly hostile if you bothered him. Left alone, he mostly just shot ugly looks at you from across the room. Then again, that might have just been because his scars made it impossible for him to actually smile.
Drum, on the other hand, was the type that sought out conflict. His pack had actually been pleasant for the week he was gone. And they’d been pretty agreeable they week prior to that, I’d also heard, but I’d been in my cell, so I couldn’t actually vouch for that.
When Drum was finally given medical clearance to leave his cell, we couldn’t help but wonder how that was affect his pack and the social climate of all the packs at the Kennel. He didn’t make us wait long to find out.
Drum strolled into the gates, already spitting angry. Unlike my return, he was not greeted by his pack mates. They were not eagerly waiting for his return. He also did not return as a victor but as a disgrace. He entered the halls of his former home after two weeks, finding no one there to greet him.
He had to walk past our room to get to Chahar’s room, and he caught a glimpse of Face sitting among us. His mouth fell open, and vile words failed to come at first. I couldn’t help but wonder what he thought, seeing us all in our clean, new clothes, gathered around tables. What a change it must have been, after having lived here for months on end, wearing rags and sleeping on piles of straw or old blankets.
“Just keep him. Worthless anyway.” He finally snorted.
Face looked at us, and we looked back at him. We collectively shrugged, and the five of us went back to talking about a stones game we’d played the day before, ignoring the swearing that slid from Drum’s mouth as he continued up the hall.
It was only a few moments later when we heard a commotion from Chahar’s room. The noise spilled out into the hallway, swearing and lots of shouting echoing for all to hear. It should have been expected, but it was still a surprise somehow.
I scrambled to my feet. I didn’t exactly like Chahar’s guys, but they were actually tolerable without Drum. I had a feeling they might even turn out to be decent, given enough time away from their feisty leader.
“What do you mean I’m not your leader?” Drum screamed, trying to push his way into the room.
Nose and Hound were holding him back. Mongrel wore a triumphant look. “You’ve pushed us around too long, Drum. You can take your place at the bottom of the pack, or you can go sleep in one of the other rooms. Maybe you can start your own new pack? Pack Sefr maybe?”
I blinked in surprise. They were throwing him out? I’d offered to step down, but my pack had kept me on. Chahar was ousting Drum, even threatening to throw him out entirely. This wasn’t the sort of thing that Drum would take lightly.
Tiny muttered something, completely amusement. “Pack Zero, eh?”
“Is that what Sefr means?” I wondered. It was not a word I’d heard before.
“Nothing. Zero.” Killer agreed.
“That’s pretty cold.” Face almost looked sorry for Drum. Almost.
“Who’s going to replace me? You, Mongrel?” Drum laughed haughtily.
Mongrel crossed his arms and lifted his chin proudly. “And what if I am?”
“I could take you apart where you stand.” Drum said threateningly.
“Maybe you could. The difference is that we’re not all fighting each other for your approval any more. Now, the four of us stand together, and the four of us can certainly take you down if Go could do it by himself.”
Drum’s whole body filled with rage. He flashed a look my way, sensing us in the halls, not that half of every pack wasn’t in the halls anyway. “You motherless sons of…”
He never got to finish his insult. Nose and Hound threw him backward into the wall. He rebounded and dropped to his knees. Drum had never been the largest boy, and he’d just recovered from a flogging. Now, that weakness was made apparent. He looked so small huddled behind his dog, who growled defensively.
Before, he’d always stood behind his massive dog and ruled with fear, but he couldn’t just run his mouth and stand behind his dog any longer. His pack wasn’t going to put up with his bullying and abuse.
“Get out, Drum. Stay in your own room. Maybe we’ll let you in tomorrow, if you beg.” Mongrel was a little too smug in his reply, and Drum, beaten or not, had some pride left.
Drum threw himself forward, and Bear followed. Drum tackled Mongrel to the ground and started pounding at his face with his fists while Bear took Mongrel’s mutt in his massive mouth and shook. The brown mutt yelped in pain, and when Bear shook him loose, the smaller dog sailed into the wall.
The remaining members of Chahar fell upon Drum, while the three dogs struggled to put up a fight against Bear. It got ugly. There was a lot of frustration and hate in that group, things that had festered too long. I longed to jump into this, but it was not my place. They needed to work it out.
In a short while, all five of them were beaten and bruised, but none worse than Mongrel’s mutt and Drum. Drum and Bear limped away to an empty room, beaten once more. For once, he was wordless and dead-eyed, except for the look of pure malice he shot my way. I’d been the one to first illustrate his vulnerability, and since then, things had certainly gone from bad to worse for him. Clearly, I was the one he’d blame most for his downfall.
“Welcome back, Drummy!” Tiny taunted as Drum retreated into his new room.
Drum paused to nod at Tiny, laughing hollowly. I shot Tiny a warning look, but the words were already out. Tiny had just made himself a target for all that hate, and he was a lot easier target than I was.
The rest of Chahar gathered in their room to tend to Mongrel’s mutt, who was in a bad way. I knew this wasn’t over. Drum wouldn’t let this be. It was just going to get worse, but I had no idea just how bad it would get.
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?
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.
I woke in a cage in a darkened room, feeling as if I’d been thoroughly beaten. I probably had been, but my memory was hazy. I couldn’t see much beyond the dark, damp walls. What part of the complex was I in? I didn’t recognize it. Even the smells were strange.
I smacked my lips, disliking the cottony feeling of my tongue. My head ached along with the rest of my face. The areas around my jaw and nose were especially tender, as if the bones had been broken and had recently reknitted. My fingertips were bleeding. So was the slash on my side, where the halberd had cut along my ribs. It was crusty and stuck to my shirt, what was left of my shirt anyway. I also had a crossbow wound in my thigh, a dog bite on my ankle, and an impressive collection of bruises and scrapes.
I’d had worse.
I smiled, remembering the alley fight with the desert cat from my childhood. “That was something, eh?” I spoke to Dog, except Dog wasn’t there.
Panic set in. I lurched up from my prone position, forgetting that I was in a cage. My head slammed into the top of the cage. I howled with rage and shook the bars of the cage in my fists. This just made me madder. I screamed until I panted, and I pulled at the bars until sweat and saliva both dripped from me.
“DOG!” I screamed over and over and over again, screaming myself hoarse.
Distantly, I thought I heard a bark, a yelp of recognition. There was a tickle at the back of my mind, a presence. I knew it was him, but he was not here, and he was as hurt as I was. We needed to be together. Why was he not with me? In my life, I could not ever recall having been separated, and it was a horrible sensation.
I heard a clank from the door. I ceased my screaming and struggling, catching my breath as I watched to see who came in. I smelled him before I saw him, although his outline was also familiar.
“Kalb.” I hissed.
“Go.” Kalb replied, closing the door behind him. I heard it bolt and lock from the other side. He stepped over to my cage and settled him onto the floor in the manner of someone older and more tired than he looked.
In the dim light, I focused on his yellow eyes, which seemed to glow from within. They were not so yellow as they were when he grew angry, when he became more than just a man, as I had. In his eyes, I could see a faint reflection of my face, and my eyes were no longer yellow.
“You’ve made quite a mess of things.” He sighed.
I laughed. “I have? Did I ask to be put here? Did I ask to be treated like this? You did all of that.”
Kalb smiled beneath his beard, teeth flashing. “Boy, you have no idea the opportunities you’re being given. On the street, what were you? You were a thief or a scavenger at best. Here, you can be something!”
I shook my head. “I was something. I was a pack.”
“And what did that amount to? You were untrained, a waste of the gift you were born with. You could be so much more than any of these boys…”
Kalb shook his head. “You don’t understand. What you did yesterday, it’s something that I can do, but that took me years to learn. I cannot understand how you’ve done it so soon. Your abilities… they will be amazing.”
“I don’t want to be a beast.”
“But you’ve always been one. You just didn’t realize it. Like you, I was a feral child once, too. Only I didn’t save the Emperor’s daughter. I saved him.”
“You saved the Emperor?” This was news to me. It’s something I hadn’t imagined. Was that why he served the Emperor? Were they pack?
Kalb nodded. “I met him in the market after his people had conquered our lands, although conquer is a rough and inaccurate word for what really happened. We were a scattered, fractured people. We squabbled and fought over scraps of territory. His people came in and united us under their banner. We are more under them than we were when free. Our people have prospered more in the last twenty years than they had in the two hundred before they came among us.”
“And for that I owe your Emperor my service?”
“Oh, I think we know more than that, you and I.” Kalb laughed. “A dog can’t have two masters.”
I swallowed hard. Did he know? “Was that why the tests…” I trailed off.
“The perfume. The girl. The statues. I needed to know for certain.”
His eyes took on a look of concern, a surprising emotion that I could smell upon him. “Politics are strange, convoluted games, Go. I’ve said that I serve the Emperor. Like you, I am bonded to him. When he was a boy, someone tried to have him killed. I saved him, and he bonded me that day. We shared blood. I feel its fire in my veins to this day, even years later, the same as you feel hers.”
“Yes. Nokomi, his daughter. All of these boys are going to be sworn and loyal to the Emperor, but what happens when the Emperor changes or dies? Who will their loyalty transfer to?”
“Why would the Emperor die?”
“Remember how there was an attempt on his life as a boy? Those have never stopped. Every year on that day, another attempt is made. He has been fortunate. He has always avoided death, sometimes at a personal cost. Other times I have borne the pain intended for him, but we have always come out alive.”
“But that can’t last forever.” I surmised.
“No, it can’t. One day, our luck will run out.”
“Then find who is doing it and stop them!” If the Emperor died, what would that mean for Nokomi?
A flash of teeth again, a vicious smile from Kalb. “We have not been lax in our attempts to find the source of the assassins. Still years later, we’ve not been able to root out the true source. Explanations have been offered, but I don’t like them. There is one who hides his true intentions.”
I narrowed my eyes at him. Something wasn’t being said here. “You know who it is.”
“I believe I know the real culprit, but the Emperor would never believe me.”
I sniffed. “Family.”
Kalb regarded me with surprise once again. “It is not Nokomi or her sister. I trust his wife as well. I won’t mention names now, because I don’t know how far to trust you. There are things you should not know until you are ready.”
“What is it you want from me then?”
“I want you to swear to serve the Emperor.”
“You said I cannot serve two masters…”
He nodded. “Exactly, but you might serve your true master and the Emperor while the interests of the two coincide. There will come a day when the Emperor will die, hopefully of old age. At that time, the army we’re making here will transfer their loyalty to someone else, the new Emperor.”
“Who will that be?”
“The Empress may take control for a while, but there will have to be an Emperor. It will be a new consort for the Empress, the husband of one of his daughters, or another relative.” He hesitated, as if to say more, but then he remembered who he was speaking to. “Nokomi is the youngest daughter, so she is the least threatening of the three ladies, but you’ve already bonded with her. I want you to protect her, no matter what. I want you to be her personal guardian, all the while pretending to serve only the Emperor.”
“You want me to lie to the Emperor about my loyalty to him? Don’t you serve him?”
“Don’t be daft.” He said sharply. “I am serving him by setting you as a true guardian to his most beloved child. He loves the Empress Anahita as his mate, and he loves his firstborn daughter, Neema, but Nokomi is his heart. That girl can do no wrong in his eyes, despite her rebellious nature. I am protecting her to serve him.”
“She is pack.” I said softly.
“I know, Go.” He sighed. “I know.” If anyone understood this, it was him.
“But what do I do about this place?”
“You learn. I need you to endure this punishment. You attacked a guard, a servant of the Emperor. You need to be punished for that.”
“But being separated from Dog!”
Kalb held up his hands. “It was necessary. Even unconscious, you couldn’t return to human until you were separated. You don’t have the control you need. You will learn, and someday you will be able to become the beast without losing the brain of a man.”
“I need Dog.” I insisted.
“I know. He will be returned to you. You two can heal together, until your punishment is up.”
“Drum?” Had my rival been punished as well?
“He has been punished for disrespecting the Emperor’s daughter. He was whipped and forced to clean the statue.”
That was acceptable. It didn’t mean it would change him though. I knew his type. He’d look for a way to get his revenge. He was an ugly person. There was still the matter of my pack. “Panj?”
“Your pack, if they’ll still have you as leader, has grown. Face joined it. He wasn’t welcome in Chahar anymore.”
That was welcome news, at least. I liked Face. He was better suited to our pack than Chahar. Still, would my own pack want me back? “What if they don’t want me anymore?”
“Then you live apart. There are consequences to actions, Go. This might be one of them for you. No matter where you end up, you must still learn your lessons, beside them, if not with them. What you have is important. They will fear you, but they will want what you have. They will want to learn to do as you have. That is one of the reasons why we created the Kennel. You have more of the Old Blood in you than any of them, and it shows. Respect will come as you learn your lessons and grow more powerful. You don’t need their love.”
“Old Blood, that is this animal connection we have… Is that so different from what Nokomi’s people have? If they come from another land, then they don’t have the Old Blood in them?”
‘The Old Blood is strange to them. Even in our land, it is a widely forgotten remnant of our people’s first days in the world, when animals offered their minds to us, when we worked together to protect each other and live. That’s why they’re only just now trying to make use of it.” Kalb explained.
He traced a scar on his forearm. Was that where he’d been bonded? The scar on my forehead flared at the memory of Nokomi’s blood mixing with mine. “And Nokomi’s people?”
“What they have is the New Blood. It’s the power of blood and fire. You’ve felt it in your veins. They come from a harsh place, a place where fire was life. It became part of their family in particular. It is why they rule. Their blood is like fire. It is fire, if they want it to be. It can also bond people to them, as with you and I.”
I tried to understand all of this. It was a lot to take in. I was to serve the Emperor, while secretly serving his daughter instead. I would be her guardian and protector, but only if I made it through this place and learned to control my abilities.
“Go?” Kalb asked, seeing as how I’d gone silent.
“Do we have an understanding? Will you serve Nokomi?”
“You didn’t have to ask. It’s all I’ve ever wanted since I met her. I’ve only ever wanted to be beside her. She is pack.”
“There will come a time, I fear, when serving her might mean putting you at odds with the rest of the kingdom. Will you still serve her then?”
“Dog and I will serve her to our deaths. She is pack.” I repeated.
Kalb reached a hand toward the cage, grasping my hand where it was clasped around the bars. “Boy, I want to trust you. Do not betray my faith in you.”
Kalb laughed. “Your persistence is admirable. I will bring him here immediately.”
“And food. Water. Clothes.”
“Fine. It will be so. Now heal and learn your lessons well.”
“And you, will you be back?”
Kalb stared at me for a long moment, thinking. “I think I will, if I can, when there are lessons that these men can’t teach you. Know that I cannot come often. There are those that watch my comings and goings, and this place is still a secret.”
He hammered on the door with a fist. It was opened hurriedly. Even the guards here feared his wrath and moved quickly to do his will. What must that be like, I wondered?
After he left, I heard him in the halls, barking orders at the soldiers guarding my door. He called for Dog to be brought to me, along with food, water, and more. I settled back down into the straw of the cage and waited.
My excitement trickled through the bond I shared with Dog. He knew. We’d be together again soon. I knew his tail was wagging. I could feel it.
I’m not sure exactly how he knew, but Drum found me out there by the statue. Maybe someone told him. Maybe he just knew I’d go out there to see his handiwork. It didn’t matter, so long as he was there.
Drum strolled out, hands on his hips and his head thrown back in a haughty laugh. His giant dog came out beside him, carrying itself as all fur and muscle and threats. Pack Chahar filed out behind him, including Face, who had a blackening eye and scratches across his neck; his dog was limping. That only fueled the fires of my anger.
I cast a glance at Dog. He was with me. His eyes were resolute, rings of dark brown fury that were a perfect mirror to my own.
“Clean the statue now.” I ordered, pointing at Drum.
Drum laughed again, looking around at his crew as if he couldn’t believe I’d say such a thing. They all laughed, though their laughs were a forced echo of his.
“This is your one chance to do this without a fight.”
“Who are you going to fight, Go? You and your wild little dog have no chance against us. It’s six against one.”
I didn’t point out that one of theirs was hurt and likely wouldn’t fight me. I didn’t mention that my own pack would probably join me. I didn’t say that Bull, Red, and others might throw in on my side, if things came to it. I kept them all out of this. This was my fight. “I will take those odds. Will you?”
Drum scoffed. “You think that much of yourself, do you, new kid?” He stepped out onto the sand to make a point, clearing the gates and the tunnel that led back to our rooms.
I was done talking. Dog’s hackles raised. He put his head low and emitted a growl. I stepped forward, crouching. My fingers curled into claws, and I bared my teeth. The back of my neck tingled, hair standing up. My vision narrowed and every muscle in my body coiled tightly like a serpent ready to strike.
Drum looked unsure of himself for a moment, but he’d talked himself into this. His dog, Bear, led the way as always, leaving the scared little boy a half-step behind his beast. Still, that beast weighed nearly as much as Dog and I put together.
With a nod, I sent Dog to my left, circling around to the right flank, where Drum stood beside his dog, casting looks back at his pack, wondering why they weren’t exactly jumping in to help out. Had I been able to look at myself, I might not have wondered why.
I didn’t wait. I just struck. Drum had exactly enough time to open his eyes wider in surprise as my fist came sailing in, striking him across his side of the face. He cried out and stumbled back into his dog, who snarled and turned to face me. Except, that’s what Dog was waiting for. He was on Bear’s back in an instant, snapping and snarling as he bit into the thick fur and heavy skin of the larger dog’s neck.
I’d learned that when you faced an opponent that was larger or stronger, you never gave them a chance to counterattack. We never let up, trying to keep Bear from getting a good opportunity to strike. Soon enough, we were a tangle of fists, feet, teeth, snarls, and howls.
I felt claws scratch across my forearm as I delivered a heavy punch to Bear’s flank, staggering him. I rounded to smash my knee into Drum’s gut as he tried to control my other flailing arm, going for some sort of restraint hold on my arm that never came of anything.
Drum vomited up the meal he had been so proud of. His spew of food sailed past my shoulder to land on the dirt. While Drum was doubled over, I jumped onto his dog, tackling his rear legs out from under him.
Dog and I tore at the larger dog. I had a mouth full of fur and blood. I heard howls of pain and snarls like you only heard when dogs were seriously trying to hurt each other. The massive dog yelped and shook us off, trying to get away. Tail between his legs, he rounded on us and backed away, baring his teeth defensively.
I was greeted with a wallop upside the head that sent me staggering. I landed headfirst in the same, feeling grit scrape across my face as the sand entered my eyes, nose, and mouth all at once. Dog howled and attacked someone else. Teeth latched onto my ankle and bit deep.
I clawed the sand from my eyes, wound up, and kicked at the blurry shape with my other foot. I connected with my foot, sensing something give. I’d probably hurt the dog, but I was beyond caring. Spitting sand and blood, I regained my feet and faced off against more of Pack Chahar.
Nose, with his hound, and Mongrel, with his brown mutt, had joined the fight against me. Two more members of Chahar were engaged with what looked to be Legs and Tiny. Blurry as things were, I thought I saw Face standing to the side, apparently trying to stay out of it.
I threw my head back and howled. Dog howled back. I felt a shudder in my arms, and a sharp pain in my fingertips. I glanced down at my fingers, blinking away the sand and dizziness. My fingertips had elongated into sharpened points, human fingernails giving way to canine claws. My mouth, too, ached, and my eyes felt strange.
I did not take the time to revel in the changes. Instead, I shook my head again and took a menacing step toward Nose and Mongrel, whose dogs barked and backed away from me. Gone was the pain in my ankle. Gone was the stinging scrape on my arm. I felt nothing. I felt amazing. I’d never felt so powerful before, and these two were going to feel my wrath. I’d feel my teeth on their throats, my claws in their flesh.
I launched myself into the air, leaping as I’d never been able to before. Had I been in the streets, this sort of jump would have carried me across a wide alley, from one rooftop to another. In the sand, it carried my fist into Nose’s face. It crunched wetly.
My next two steps carried me over to Mongrel. I drove my fist into his chest and then shredded his shirt with my claws. Blood blossomed where my claws crossed. Dog worried at their animals, his ferocity matching my own. It was enough to keep them off my flanks.
Tiny and Legs were holding their own against the long-haired dog from Chahar and his master, as well as the sleek, grey dog that filled out their team. Killer was doing his best to keep Drum’s dog away from me while I finished these two.
Mongrel held up his arms to protect his face, so I clawed the backs of his hands and arms before driving my foot into his middle. He tumbled backward a half-dozen paces, crumpling into the sand. Nose tried to run, but another powerful leap carried me onto his back. I stomped his face into the ground and turned to find Drum.
Drum had finished vomiting and was trying to crawl away. I strode powerfully over to him, hearing voices, but ignoring them. With Dog by my side, I reached down and picked Drum up by the scruff of his neck. Snarling, I regarded his puke-stained face as he babbled and cried into my eyes.
I stared at my reflection in his eyes, seeing yellow. I blinked at that.
My eyes were yellow, and my nose had reshaped into a poor semblance of a dog’s muzzle, betraying sharp teeth beneath my lips, which had split on top, as with a dog’s mouth. I did not recognize myself, but I did not care.
Dog slavered beside me, blood-tinged saliva dripping into the sand. He looked larger and more imposing than I had ever seen. Dog warned Bear not to approach, but the scared beast kept attempting to save his master and get past Killer and his fighting dog.
“Go!” Someone called. I cocked my head to the side, ears twitching.
“Go!” I heard my name once more, but my thoughts were thick.
“Go! That’s enough!” This time I turned my head back toward the north gates. Bull stood there, face a mixture of horror and concern.
“You need to stop this!” It was as close as he would come to pleading.
I was aware of clanking and the raising of the south gate. A troop of auburn-clad guards filed out, led by Green. I threw Drum aside, casting him at the feet of Nokomi’s statue. I kicked him in the ribs and left him in a heap at Nokomi’s feet. Then I walked around the statues to face Green and his guardsmen.
My blood was up. I was not afraid of a man and his six soldiers. My ears pricked at the sounds of crossbows being ratcheted into readiness in the upper gallery, at least a eight of them.
“That will be enough, Go.” Green held out his hand for me to stop, to stop all of this.
“He speaks, finally.” I laughed. “Isn’t this what you wanted?” It was hard to form the words with my mouth. I was not used to talking with such sharp teeth in my mouth and lips formed so strangely.
Green motioned with his hands, and the guards fanned out. A single guard set himself on either side of Green, while a pair slid to both my left and right. The semicircle hedged me in with halberds, sharp spears with glinting axe blades on their lengths.
“You wanted a beast. You treated us like beasts. Now you have one.” I regarded my own hands, disgusted and yet fascinated by what I had become.
“Stop this now and return to yourself.”
“I don’t know how.” I answered. “Maybe I don’t want to.”
That much was true. I’d never felt so powerful. My heart pounded in my chest, and with each hammer of that muscle, I could feel my muscles tense and ready for battle. My senses were stronger than ever before. I could smell the fear on these men. I could smell everything they’d eaten that day. I could smell a wife’s perfume on one of them, a lingering trace on his neck. I could count the pores on Green’s face. I smelled a coming storm in the air, a hint of ozone that spoke of lightning and seasonal rains. I could taste the blood of dog and man on my lips, and I knew the difference.
I felt unstoppable.
“Go!” Bull called once more. “Stop!”
“Yes, listen to your friend. Stop now, and we can get you calmed down and back to yourself. You just need to stop.” Green might have spoken evenly and calmly, but as I tilted my head, I could hear the excitement in his pulse. I could smell the eagerness on his skin. He wanted me to go too far. He wanted to see what I could do.
My thoughts raced. There were so many things I could do. I knew I could get my hands on Green before they put a crossbow bolt in me. I just knew I could clear those steps and snap his neck. They might hit me once or twice, but I also knew I could jump up to the second floor and kill at least half of those men with crossbows before they could reload.
But then what? What would become of me? How would I make it back to Nokomi?
In the space of seconds, I weighed my options. I felt heartbeats coming up beside me. I opened my nostrils… Legs. Killer. Tiny. My pack.
“Go, if you want to do this, we will.” Tiny announced, his pocket-sized pup ready to go to war beside him.
“No, you idiots!” Green hissed. “Stand down! Go back!”
The guards suddenly didn’t look so convinced. Six on one hadn’t seemed so bad. Now it was six on four, with four dogs helping.
Green looked about the say something, when his eyes flashed with rage. More heartbeats were coming up behind me. Face and Red were joining us. Counting dogs, that was twelve of us now, and I was worth nearly as much as all of these men put together.
I smiled at him. “What now, Green?”
Green shook his head and signaled with a hand. I knew that I was his target, so I wanted to move away from my pack. Eight crossbows sang out. I sprang forward and to the side, trying to put my body behind a guard. Bolts whistled past my face and others stabbed into the sand near my feet. Others had better aim. I felt a sting rip through my thigh, I stumbled, but my momentum carried me into the surprised guard. His halberd blade sliced along my ribs, but I drove him to the ground.
Dog harassed the next guard, but was struggling to get past his halberd. Howls and more fighting broke out, but with me down, my fellows were unable or unwilling to push the issue.
I started to pick myself up to move to the next foe, but I felt faint, more than I should have. My vision began to swim even as I listened for the telltale sounds of crossbows being reloaded. I stumbled forward, and, hearing more shouts from my pack, I held up a hand for them to freeze.
I could only remember a few times in my life when I’d ever felt such a sensation before... I’d felt it when I’d been sick as a child and deep in a fever. I’d felt it when I’d arrived here at the Kennel, waking up in a fog. But the first time I really remembered such a sensation was when I’d had my scalp ripped and Nokomi had let her blood mingle with my own.
I don’t know why it was this very moment that I realized how important that moment had been. Nokomi’s blood has mixed with my own. Dog had licked it after, and had in turn licked his own wounds from the desert cat. Our blood had all comingled, the three of us. That’s why we were pack, we three. It was in our blood.
Nokomi. I needed to get back to her. But how? Dying now was not the way.
I staggered away, aware of more shouting and of guards hedging me in with their weapons. They drove me, and I was too delirious to prevent it. Maybe I even let them. The east gate opened behind me. Dog and I were forced into the tunnel that led to the yard.
I vaguely recall being pushed into the yard beyond the short tunnel, beyond the watching eyes of the packs. Then, as I began to collapse, surrounded by guards, I heard the clank and clatter of a cage being opened. Then it all went dark, and I was left dreaming of a smell, the smell of whatever had been on those crossbow bolts and those halberds.
I wished that smell had been Nokomi’s perfume instead.
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.
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.
On our second day off, we were let out into the yard after our first meal, as with every other day. There did seem to be a smaller guard contingent out on the walls, but otherwise, it seemed like a normal day.
Yet, unlike a normal day, I had a purpose as I walked the yard. Dog and I set ourselves to scouting out rocks. We were looking for specific shapes and sizes of rocks. We wanted the roundest rocks we could find, and those we found, we pocketed. Dog and I nosed around the edges of the walls and along the sandier areas of the yard where rocks seemed more likely to be exposed to discovery.
Tiny was very interested in what we were doing and came over to check up on us. “What are you doing?”
“Looking for something. Rocks. It’s for a game we used to play in the alleys.” Truth be told, it was a game I’d watched other boys play in the alleys. I’d never played it myself. I’d never had friends to play with.
Tiny took this in stride. Looking for rocks wasn’t the strangest thing I could have asked for, after all. “What kind of rocks do you want?”
“Flat and round, or round-round?”
I stared at him for a moment, and then I showed him the marble-like, spherical stones I’d found already. He looked at them thoughtfully, took one from my hand, and showed it to L.D. Then he gave me back my rock and took off to find more of their own.
Perhaps it was their proximity to the ground, but they managed to find six more rocks that were passable and two that weren’t. Dog and I only found four good ones total. Still, ten rocks between the two of us were enough for a game. I also snagged a chalky rock that would be good for marking walls.
Later, when we were back inside, I washed off the rocks, finding that one of them was a hard clod of clay instead. Still, we were left with nine rocks. That’d have to do.
There was a lot of interest in what I was up to. Even washing the rocks gathered a small crowd. Bull had seen what I was about, although he probably hadn’t understood it, so he showed up and crossed his arms, watching as I retreated into one of the spare rooms with my washed rocks and began marking up the walls.
Honestly, I couldn’t remember all of the rules, and much of what I’d seen had been months ago, before I could understand most of the conversations that had gone on during the game. What I did remember was a couple variations, one played toward a corner or a crack where a wall met the floor. The other was played within a circle. I’d always found the click and clack of rocks knocking into each other and the walls more satisfying, so I set that one up first. There would be time to try the other variation later, if things went well.
I scratched a tan line across the floor about a handspan away from the wall, paralleling the wall as I went. Then I drew a second line parallel to the wall, this one about two paces away from the first.
“You play like this…” I began to explain to the crowd, which now included most of Pack Se, Red from Pack Do, and the boy with the wrinkly dog from Pack Chahar. Apparently, someone messing around in an empty room was much more interesting than lounging about and waiting for the evening meal.
I placed all of the rocks in a pile. I sorted them out into two piles of four, keeping the last rock in my hand. I marked the last rock with my scratching rock, making an X across it in three places, enough that at least part of one X would be noticeable regardless of how it landed.
Then, I knelt behind the second line, the one farther from the wall, and I tossed my marked rock forward, trying to get it as close to the crack between the wall and the floor as possible. It was overthrown, so it clattered against the wall and rebounded nearly back to the closer line I’d drawn.
“You have four throws. You have to get as many of them as possible past the marked stone. Your opponent will attempt to do the same.”
“That seems simple enough.” Tiny declared, seeming a bit disappointed by the simplicity.
“Try it, then.” I offered him four rocks.
He eyed me suspiciously. L.D. sniffed the rocks with some familiarity. He recognized them, even if they’d been washed since he’d helped collect them. He almost looked tempted to urinate on them, but Tiny shoed him aside, earning a snarl. Tiny barked at his dog and the feisty little beast sat down beside him, looking temporarily subdued.
Tiny knelt beside me behind the line and tossed a rock. It clattered forward, stopping short of the line. He frowned. “It didn’t go past the line.”
“So that rock is worthless now, unless you can knock it forward with another, or knock the marked stone back behind it somehow.” I tossed my own rock. It landed past the line, but not in front of the marked rock. “That’s better, but not good enough. Your turn.”
“How do you know who wins?”
“The best rock, the one closest to the wall is worth two. All others past the marked stone are worth one, unless your enemy has any rocks closer to the wall than them.” I decided that last part on a whim. I wasn’t sure if it was correct or not. “Whoever has the most points win.”
“So seven points is a perfect score.” Bull suggested, eyeing the game shrewdly. “Two for the best rock, plus one each for the other three rocks, supposing they are all closer to the wall than any of your enemy’s rocks.”
Bull was clearly better at the scoring and points of the game than I. Perhaps he’d even come up with some other rules, given time. We played the rest of our throws.
Tiny’s second toss was the best throw yet, but I topped it with my second throw, if only because it struck his throw and sent it skittering off the wall and rolling backward past the line. I now had two points to his zero. He glared at me, his momentary celebration cut short. I grinned. Dog did as well, his head swiveling toward Tiny.
Tiny’s third throw was past the marked rock, but not better than my second throw. With my third throw, I rolled one almost to where my second throw had been, but just behind Tiny’s third throw. So far, it was just that one good throw he had to beat to win.
With his last throw, he ricocheted off the wall and nearly struck my good throw. It narrowly missed. I was left with the winning throw and no need to cast my last stone. I did anyway, casting far enough away from my winning throw that there was no chance of sabotaging my win. It was a good toss, nearly as good as the winning through, which earned me another point. I won with three points.
“Again.” Tiny insisted.
“Hey, I want a turn.” Legs argued, hovering over us.
“I call next!” Bull announced.
I held up my hand with the marking rock in it. “Who can keep score? I don’t know my numbers well enough.”
Bull snagged it from my hand, marked something on the wall that must have been my name and put three small marks beneath it. He quickly marked off some more names. Taking the lead, he called off two more names.
“Everyone plays once, and then the best four play each other.” He suggested, but it was more like taking over. He’d taken my game and run with it, and I was happy with that. I was content to sit back and let him organize.
Before we’d all played once, Bull pulled another member of his pack play to even us out at eight people. It was all four of us from Panj, plus four others. I made it out of the second round of playing, only to be defeated by Bull, who had a very careful shot.
By the time Red won, defeating Bull in the final match with a score of only two, we’d gathered quite a crowd. Blankets were brought in so people could sit or kneel in comfort. Others joined in the next round of play. I didn’t do quite as well, but Tiny made it out of the first couple rounds. The room slowly filled up and then overflowed, with some of us even sitting in the halls. It was standing room only inside the room, with cheers erupting every few seconds as the gameplay proceeded.
When baskets arrived for our evening meal, the guards didn’t know what to do or where to put them. It was almost as if some of us didn’t care so much about food with such a diversion around. The baskets were simply placed in our rooms, and the guards retreated in confusion. Rather than segregating for the meals, nearly three full packs ate together, laughing and enjoying the company of our peers. Pack Yek and half of packs Chahar and Do ate in their rooms, but we had all of Panj, Se, and the remaining halves of Chahar and Do with us.
More than once, looks swiveled my way, but they were looks of gratitude, appreciation, and even respect. I nodded back to them, but otherwise kept to myself.
“I see what you did here.” Bull said at length, seated beside me as we ate.
“It’s just rocks.” I offered, smiling.
“It is more than that, and you know it. Some of us have been here a year or more, and nothing like this has ever happened before.”
I shrugged, saying nothing. Just because we were in cages didn’t mean we had to act like it. We could make the best of our time.
“I just wonder what you’ll try next. This is good. It might be a permanent change. Then again, it might not.”
I just sat in silence, chewing my bread. I smiled down at his bulldog, who was eyeing me with that complacent, calm stare of his. Dog perked his ears up at me, almost like he knew what I was thinking.
Around us, I heard another round of the game had started. I sat this one out.
The worst thing about being in a prison was being left to your own thoughts with nothing to do. On days when we had classes, we were kept too busy and left with too little time to consider our situation. Our days off, which were days seven and eight of the week, we were left to our own devices and our thoughts, many of which weren’t very pleasant.
In our first three days, we’d met with Chahar in both Red and Blue’s classes, and we’d had our solo day with Grey. We were allowed to keep the spare clothes Grey and his team had given us. They were to be kept separate and only worn at his classes. The rest of the time we were in the Kennel, we had to dress in whatever we’d worn at the time of our capture. For most of us, we owned little more than rags. Again, we were faced with our dual natures: that of being wild beasts and that of being men (when it was necessary).
Day four brought us back to Red’s class. Once more, we fought, grappled, did exercises, and participated in weapons training. This time, we had to face off Pack Do, which I’d learned was the second oldest group of recruits in the building. There were only four of them, as with our pack. But, they all had another year of training than us, and, with their scarred leader, the four of them were supposedly nearly on par with Pack Yek’s eight members. Pound-for-pound, this was the fiercest, strongest pack in the Kennel.
They mopped the floor with us. It wasn’t even close. We were all beaten severely in every exercise. With the control they had over their bodies and the precision and speed with which they attacked, they were unbeatable as we currently stood. Even Killer, strong was he was, could not quite keep up with them. Legs and Tiny took the worst beatings of the day, and my own treatment was only slightly better, possibly because of the reputation I’d gathered after my first lessons with both Red and Blue.
I saw a little disappointment in the eyes of my fellow pack mates as I was handed defeat after defeat. They clearly expected me to be some sort of unstoppable force, and that was something I’d probably brought upon myself. It made for a quiet dinner that night. We took turns massaging our hurts with the liniments and bandages that were in the bottom of our basket.
The next day we were back to Blue, again with Pack Do. We fared a little better in the King of the Hill game Blue prepared for us, if only a little. The four of us were placed atop a pyramid made of wooden pallets and covered with dirt. The pyramid was only a few steps high, not even as tall as I was. The four of us perched atop it, each pack member guarding the approach from their direction.
Pack Do logically picked on Tiny’s side of the pyramid, seeing how small he and L.D. were. When we shifted to help, Scar would attack from the distracted side, and we’d fail. Knocked from the top of the pyramid, the four of us would see our roles reversed. Now, we had to be the aggressors. Only, Scar’s team was far harder to take down than we were.
Scar’s second-in-command, a red-haired boy aptly named Fire, was nearly his equal. He had a long-haired dog with a reddish coat that matched his own locks of reddish-orange hair. The dog wasn’t nearly as aggressive as Scar’s black beast, but the red dog was large enough that only Killer’s dog could counter him. Tiny and Legs were little help in this exercise. We tried baiting our opponents down with L.D.’s tenaciousness and Legs’ speed, but they weren’t going to fall for such obvious ploys. Headlong attacks, even focused on one side of the pyramid, often failed. We just weren’t strong enough.
Again, we endured the shame of failure. We ate in silence that night, too. Thankfully, there were more medicines and creams in the basket that night. They were more welcome than the sweet treats at the bottom of the basket, which seemed to lose their savor in the face of back-to-back defeats.
Day six brought us back to Red for a lesson in battle against Pack Se. The five of them with Bull, their leader with the bulldog, were gracious opponents. They taught as they fought, they helped you up when you fell, and they congratulated you on what you did well. Losing to them did not feel like losing. They also didn’t try to hurt you like Packs Do and Chahar did.
The week came to an end, and we were left alone for two whole days. Two days of wallowing in self-pity and boredom. I made our pack clean up our room and go through at least some of the grooming exercises we’d been taught. We might not feel well, but we could at least try not to look as miserable as we all felt. We straightened our room, shaking out blankets and organizing our clothes on the small rack that had appeared in the corner of the room after the day we’d had Grey’s class. A similar rack was in the corner of each other room, Grey’s gift to each pack.
For lack of better things to do, I explored the other empty rooms. All three of them looked basically the same as our own. Would they be expanding into these rooms? Would other batches of boys be forced into this routine? I hoped not, and yet there was nothing we could do to prevent it. If there were more boys and dogs to be found, they would be brought here. They would be subjected to the same treatment and training as we were. That thought made me heartsick. Dog whined and looked up at me. Did he know what these rooms would become?
I stood in the empty room closest to ours, looking around at the bare walls. It was illuminated only by the lonely window on the wall, a portal not large enough for anyone to slip through, although L.D. would fit easily enough. The only thing was, there was no reason for the dog to escape without its master. A pet dog, like I’d seen folks have in the city, might run away on its own, but our dogs were not pets. I doubted that L.D. would have lasted long running out in the wilderness on his own anyway. A hawk or something would gobble him up before he made it halfway to the city.
Sighing, I decided to start working through some of the exercises we’d learned. We had time, and I didn’t want next week to go as this one had. When I’d worked up a sweat, I felt ready for a greater challenge.
“Killer!” I shouted. I was angry, mostly at myself. I was to blame for being weak.
His head popped through the arched doorway a moment later, his dog’s head popping through below his. “Go?”
He blinked at me once or twice and then nodded. He rolled his neck on his large shoulders to loosen up, and then walked over to lock arms with me. We began to wrestle, throwing each other around the room. He was stronger, but I was much faster. He won more matches than I did, but I knew I wasn’t going to get better without learning to fight someone stronger than me.
Drawn by the noise, Legs and Tiny gathered around to watch. A little more hesitantly, they took up wrestling as well, practicing what they’d learned against each other. They were perhaps a bit wiser than us; the floor was not so forgiving to be thrown upon, so they gathered extra blankets and used those to pad their falls.
Bull showed up at some point, I’m not exactly sure when. We’d been so into our matches that we probably didn’t see him watching us from the hall with his dog sitting across his feet.
“Do you want help?” He asked when we finally noticed him.
I looked to my fellows, and they nodded as one. So it was that Bull became something of a fourth trainer for us. Strong, patient, and able, he was a good teacher. Scar came by to scoff at us and mock our feeble efforts, but we said nothing. The next time we met, I wanted to give him a greater challenge. Bull might help get us there.
“Thank you.” I said to Bull when the five of us finally collapsed in exhaustion.
“You are welcome. These days pass slowly. There is too much time and not enough to do.” Bull said wistfully. “I am glad to have something to do.”
“I think they forget that we do not have families or any entertainment. The guards, they probably all have families to go home to. They have markets to visit. They have things to do.” Legs wore a forlorn expression that his skinny dog somehow managed to emulate.
I had an inkling, the beginnings of an idea. I thought back to how the boys in the alleys used to play, silly little games to pass the time. Was that something we could do? “Maybe we need something to do then. Training is good, but tomorrow, maybe we can do something fun.”
Bull smiled at the idea. “My pack and I would like that. Right now, I am ready for a long soak and some relaxation before our meal.”
“If we didn’t have a class today, will they still bring us a basket?” Tiny wondered aloud with more than a little alarm. No one wanted to go brush sand from our food for the second time in one day. No food would have been even worse.
“I forgot, this is your first time on a weekend. You’ll get a basket, but it won’t be anything special. It’s usually plain, simple food.”
“At least we don’t have to fight for it.” Legs remarked.
“There is that.” Bull nodded. “I will see you all later. He bowed stiffly from the waist adding a low growl, and then he vanished down the hall.
No one said anything, but we all realized that he’d just afforded us the same respect that he would have for the Emperor or his other instructors. Was that something he did to everyone, or did he truly feel that he owed as much fealty among our own kind as he did to some Emperor that he’d likely never met? It was both a worrisome and exciting thought.
We quietly gathered up ourselves and went to bathe before the evening meal came. All the while, I was quietly trying to come up with a way to entertain my pack tomorrow. If I could do that, could we bridge the gap between packs? What would that even mean? What would it be like if we all worked together?
Ideas started to swirl in my head. I had to try something.
Blue’s class had been followed with a quiet lesson, during which he’d broken down some things he’d noticed about our time in the maze. He called it a debriefing, a time to relate to what we’d experienced and learn from it. The whole time he spoke, he and other classmates kept casting glances my way, none more than Drum. I purposely ignored them, staring straight forward, dedicated to being an attentive student. The truth was, I heard only about half of what he said, and I understood about a fourth of it.
Blue outlined some tactical advice to be attempted on future assignments. It seemed as if we’d be tested differently each time we saw him. I wondered how many more of my tests would be tricks like this one, meant to make me feel as if I were to be torn once more from Nokomi’s side. I felt Kalb’s influence there. A pang of separation hit me once more, and Dog licked my hand, setting his head on my lap. I focused on him, rather than what I felt. An unknown amount of time later, we were dismissed.
That night, a basket was delivered once more, this time with a blue cloth wrapping up the food. Our treat at the bottom this time was slivers of candied ginger. The sugar on the outside of the ginger offset some of the cool burning of the ginger. The dogs wanted nothing to do with it, but the four of us boys all enjoyed it, if only because it was something strange and new.
The interesting thing was that the candied ginger had been wrapped in the handkerchief I’d fought to retrieve earlier. It still smelled of the perfume, although that scent was now mingled with the odors of food from the basket. Beneath the smells of grilled vegetables and roasted lamb coated in a potent garlic and herb oil, I could smell the perfume.
I tucked the handkerchief under my blankets, and none of the pack questioned the act. They all looked at me with understanding, although they understood nothing. They just knew something had set me off, and I’d turned into an animal… or Dog and I had done so together. No one spoke of it, but whatever had happened had caused them to look at me differently, with more respect, like the sort of respect you showed a dangerous animal when you observed it from a close proximity.
We slept instead of speaking of it.
The next morning, it became clear that we’d fallen into the Kennel’s routine quite easily, perhaps because there was no other choice. The routine was: wake, fight for the early meal, stretch our legs in the yard, go to class, clean up, eat dinner, and then sleep. The only things that changed were the specific classes we went to, the pairings of packs at certain classes, and the types of food we received.
After our morning run in the yard, where Dog and I stayed apart once more, ignoring the looks and whispers from some of the other packs, we were summoned inside once more. This time, Grey held up Panj’s symbol. Red and Blue took the other packs. We would go to Grey alone. That was something of a relief, a reprieve from being forced into accompanying Chahar for a third day in a row.
Grey led us down the long hallway of the west wing, up past the two large rooms where Red and Blue were instructing their classes in martial matters. Grey had a set of small rooms at the north end of the wing, each of which he took us through.
Prior to opening the first door, Grey smiled happily at the four of us. “This, is where you will learn to look after yourselves. You are all very shabby-looking, fresh off the streets, and that is not a fitting look for servants of the Emperor. In fact, I won’t even have you bow to his portrait until you are all cleaned up.”
The first room Grey took us into was a room filled with steaming baths. There were attendants wearing only simple cloths wrapped around their midsections, one for each of us. Each attendant scrubbed both boy and dog they were assigned to, working us over with all the delicateness a butcher might show a piece of meat. Clearly we were filthy beasts that needed to be scrubbed clean, even if that took several layers of skin with it. They wielded brushes, cloths, and scented oils like soldiers might wield weapons.
Their jobs done, the attendants drained the muddy bathtubs, while we were wrapped in soft towels and set in front of looking glasses. There, we were taught to look after every aspect of our appearances, from teeth, to skin, to hair.
We were moved to a new room next, each of us smelling fresh and looking cleaner than any of us had likely been since the days we’d come into the world. Again, prior to admittance to this room, Grey had a speech prepared for us.
“Your dogs are also servants of the Emperor, and they must also be cared for as such. They should always be presentable and proper.”
The second room had more attendants, but these ones seemed to be knowledgeable in the care of animals. They took each of us aside in pairs and showed us proper hygiene for dogs. They worried and frowned at Dog’s scratches and scars, the dirty interiors of his ears, and the state of his gum lines. I learned a dozen new things that I’d never had to care about before, things I couldn’t have considered while living in a den in the alleyways.
Dog suffered most of this indignities with fair grace, mostly because I was calm beside him. Had I been agitated, I doubt he would have let the man poke, prod, and examine him. He marveled over Dog, as he’d not seen another of his kind in the close company of a person before. We were something of an oddity even to animal doctors.
Tiny’s little beast gave his attendant the most trouble, drawing blood when the man tried to check his teeth. Apparently, L.D. mistook the man’s fingers for sausages. It was not a mistake he’d make twice.
Eventually, all of our beasts were combed and groomed. Toenails had been filed and clipped, ears were cleaned, scrapes and scratches were treated with balm, and we were all declared fit to enter the third room.
“Now you all look like proper servants of the Emperor. These final rooms,” he indicated three more rooms down his wing, “are where we learn to act like proper young men and agents of the Emperor.”
“In one of these rooms, you will learn how to dress. There are dozens of courtly functions each year, and each one has a very specific code of dress. In the next room, you will learn how to eat like a man, not a beast. It is not enough to look and smell the part. You must also be able to eat and behave like a man.” Grey smiled with a polite wince, as if we were all abominable and ill-mannered creatures. We probably were.
“Finally, you will learn etiquette and dance. To truly be a man of the court, you must be able to speak, dance, and move like a courtier. If you stalk about as a brute, it will be all too clear that you are a soldier. To serve the Emperor, you must be able to blend in with the gentlest of folk. You must be a wolf in a man’s guise, ever careful to keep to your disguise.”
The four of us looked at each other. This was a lot to take in all at once.
“I appreciate that you are overwhelmed. You’ve been raised like wild animals, and you’ve learned to act like beasts for your whole lives. Few understood your connections to your dogs, and fewer still knew how to train you to be the best of both worlds. Red and Blue might teach you to be the best warriors possible, but I will teach you all to be the best men possible.”
“Shall we begin?” He asked eagerly. He was clearly excited by the prospects of molding a new group of young men into proper human-like servants of the Emperor.
It wasn’t exactly an excited bunch of boys answering, but we all said yes. In the end, getting a fresh set of clean clothes was not such a bad thing. But who knew how difficult it could be to put on clothes, to keep them clean, and to not slop food all over oneself while eating?
I had a feeling that Grey’s lessons, while not physically challenging, would be very challenging to us mentally. Patience and manners were not things that came easily to any of us.
National Novel Writing Month 2019: The Emperor's Dogs