Only children are happy.
– slave proverb
Children are disposable.
– Torth edict
Kessa suppressed a groan at the twinge of pain in her lower spine. That ache never quite vanished anymore. The window was at least eighty times broader than herself, and she had to wash all of it.
With an internal sigh, she heaved the bucket of soapy liquid to the next area and set her spindly arms into motion again. Her reflection stared forlornly back at her in the glass: an aged ummin with gray skin creased from indoor humidity. Rags swaddled her withered body. Her short beak was curved in a semi-circle; a childish trait that used to make her feel cute, but now looked incongruous with her sunken cheeks. She kept her hat properly pinned and folded, although she was too wrinkled to attract a mate in the slave zones.
Soon her arms ached so much, and she wanted to groan every time she straightened from the soapy bucket. Maybe she could risk a short rest.
A whisper of footfalls announced her owner, so Kessa emptied her mind of all thought but what she was doing. Her arms moved in a pattern. Up and around, then a fresh dip into the bucket, never mind her aches. It was best to live in the moment whenever a Torth was nearby.
Outside, the distant spaceport was generating even more aerial traffic than usual, obscured by haze. Yellow clouds of sand particles billowed between stone skyscrapers. Although Kessa longed for the dry air outdoors, she was grateful that her owner kept her away from construction work crews. Far too many slaves died on construction duty.
Soapy water collected into tears on the glass. Each one contained a miniature city trapped in a sphere. Each city was obliterated when the second cloth sopped over it.
Her owner stood directly behind her, focused on some inner thing that was unknowable to slaves. Kessa had to be extra careful to avoid bumping into her owner’s pristine golden turquoise robes. She watched her thin old hands, fascinated, as they moved the wet sponges up and down, then in a circle, alternately washing and drying. She would have to retrieve a stepladder in order to reach the high sections of the window. Climbing with the heavy buckets would make her whole body ache for days. That was a dangerous thought—a complaint—so she immediately shoved it from her mind.
After an excruciating amount of time, the Torth woman waggled her manicured fingers in the “preen” gesture, reflected in the glass. Kessa gratefully dropped the sponge into the bucket and ran to retrieve the beauty kit from the powder room.
When she returned, she found her owner sprawled onto a plush divan, waiting with her electric-blue curls disarrayed. Golden hover-combs lay scattered on the floor. Kessa picked up the mess with quick ease, grateful that her owner favored sparse minimalism. Most Torth filled their suites with treasure, and each room of a Torth suite was large enough for several hundred slave bunk shelves.
Preening a Torth was far more dangerous than washing windows or floors. Kessa removed the last few combs from her owner’s hair, careful to catch the hair before it could fall with an audible sound. Then she began to gently brush. Her owner sometimes rewarded her for silent admiration, so Kessa admired how the light played on each steely blue corkscrew curl. So beautiful.
For the finishing touch, Kessa applied golden glitter to her owner’s eyebrows. That yellow color matched her owner’s irises, and Kessa’s slave collar glowed yellow when she was on active duty. A lifetime of serving Torth had taught Kessa the gist of what Torth eye colors meant. Yellow Ranks were the most common and most lowly among the god-like Torth.
Pain wracked her body. Kessa gulped back a yelp and barely managed to avoid smearing her owner’s face with glitter. For a confused instant, she wondered if the pain was a mealtime alert, since she felt more famished than usual. But this was a deeper pain; a punishment seizure.
She must have offended her owner. Of course. Kessa was merely a stupid slave who should never presume anything about a Torth. She curled her owner’s eyelashes, berating herself for as long as possible. Self-punishment was a healthy habit, since it saved a Torth the trouble.
At last, her owner flexed four fingers in the dismissal gesture. Kessa bowed and rushed to put away the beauty kit and escape the suite, since Leftovers Hall was quite a distance away. Torth could speed across such distances on hovercarts, hoverbikes, or hoverchairs, but slaves could not drive vehicles.
So Kessa ran, her toenails clicking alongside the clicks and footfalls of thousands of other slaves. Running was healthy. Every slave knew that, for an idle slave could be given ten reasons to run. Only Torth walked at leisure through city streets.
When traffic slowed, Kessa figured that some poor slave must be suffering death-by-torture. Other slaves would silently watch the death, either in sympathy or with gratitude that it wasn’t them, but Kessa had no stomach for such things. She looked for the garden entrance of the alternate route she’d memorized, impatiently threading her way past larger species, dodging the thorny bulk of a slave guard.
Tortured slaves usually screamed. Soon Kessa became aware that slaves were not causing this traffic jam at all. Every Torth in sight stood still, apparently unaware of the slaves forced to part around them. They all stared in one direction . . . beyond the railing, towards the forum floor below.
A procession of hovercarts snaked through the crowd down there. Kessa blinked, hardly able to process the size of one of the Torth in those hovercarts. Then she blinked again, refocusing, because the giant Torth wore a slave collar. She had never seen nor heard of anything like that.
A slave jostled past her. More slaves followed, impatient to get to their meals, or their bunk-rooms, or their work shifts. Whatever that procession was about, it was clearly a Torth matter that had nothing to do with slaves. Kessa hesitated. She ought to hurry to Leftovers Hall. If she missed a meal, she might make a fatal mistake at work, and nothing was worth that risk.
But the Torth in that procession were so strange. They wore outlandish clothes, and four of them, including the giant, wore slave collars, although they were dark and therefore unactivated. Dread and awe passed across some of their faces. That made them look downright slave-like. Kessa had heard folktales about Torth-with-emotions, but until now, she had never suspected those tales held any truth.
She looked around to see if anyone else had noticed the weirdness. A few other slaves looked curious, but they wisely pushed onward, trying not to draw Torth attention. Kessa ought to do the same. It was best to ignore this event. A slave could never understand Torth affairs, nor why the sun rose every morning, nor why the moons had cycles. All she could do was guess and wonder.
Despite her sensibility, despite her hunger, Kessa paused to study the procession further. Every window along the street was synchronized to the exact same view—a close-up of the procession—so she could see their eye colors. Mystery ranks. Common Torth had yellow eyes, or green or brown, and occasionally red. Blue was rare. Any Torth with blue eyes, or blank white eyes, was normally surrounded by a horde of slaves in clean uniforms rather than filthy rags. They commanded more than the usual amount of luxury. Kessa had only seen a few high ranks in her life, and never so many together. Here were several dozen Torth with white eyes and no attendant slaves.
As for the giant . . . Kessa refocused several times, just to make sure she was seeing his eye color correctly. Purple was taboo. She had never seen a Torth wear that color. As far as she knew, there was no such thing as a Purple Rank.
She had heard of Black Ranks, but she’d never seen one until now. The small Torth with black eyes sat in a unique chair that didn’t hover.
Slaves all over the city would make guesses about this event. They’d discuss it for many moon cycles, and young slaves would undoubtedly corner Kessa in slave zones, expecting wisdom from an elder. So Kessa studied every nuance of the strange procession for as long as she dared. She would put forth her own theories and conjectures. She would mediate debates. If she was influential enough—if she was lucky—maybe her name would be remembered after she passed out of the realm of the living.