Kessa sat up to study the three Torth wearing slave collars. The whole city had come to a standstill when these odd Torth showed up, and now they were in her bunk-room.
“I was ordered to bring these three here,” the hall guard proclaimed in his gravelly voice. He filled the doorway with his thorny bulk. “Many high-ranked Torth told me that they are slaves.”
No one else dared to speak. Not in the presence of Torth.
But slaves needed to be able to talk or sing or nuzzle each other every once in a while, which was surely why the Tunnels existed. If slaves were forced to be obedient even here, in their own bunk-rooms, then the city would devolve into chaos. It seemed monstrously unfair.
Kessa decided to risk speaking. “Have you seen them get treated like slaves, Weptolyso?”
“Yes.” The hall guard, Weptolyso, displayed his fine array of teeth in a grin. “They did not fight back.”
The three Torth stared as if they hadn’t understood a word anyone said. They looked terrified, like slaves, but that had to be a sham. Their eyes were not yellow, which meant they were middling or upper ranks.
“How long are they supposed to be treated like slaves?” Kessa asked.
“I was not told,” Weptolyso said.
Murmurs broke out. Everyone agreed that Weptolyso was a fine example of his species, but the folks of Nuss—nussians—were gullible and rash. He had probably misinterpreted the situation. This must be some twisted experiment, a way for Torth to find out how stupid slaves were.
“Peace, peace!” Weptolyso boomed above the ruckus. “They are behaving like slaves. I heard them speak to each other in some unknown language.”
As if to prove his point, the tall Torth with rust-colored hair babbled something. She tugged at her slave collar and repeated the syllables, which sounded airy and pleading.
Many slaves, when they arrived fresh off a slave farm, had a particular language. Kessa could still remember the swishy dialect of her childhood, although she had not heard it spoken in countless lunar cycles. But no matter where a slave grew up, and no matter what strange accents they arrived with, all slaves learned the common slave tongue as well as their local language. Surely a Torth would know it as well. Torth knew everything that slaves knew, plus more.
“This is foulness!” Hajir, the only nerctan slave in the bunk-room, jumped off his bunk with a heavy thud. Other slaves jumped back. Slaves from Mer Nerct commanded some respect, since a nerctan could hurt smaller people by swinging their triple-jointed necks.
“They’re baiting us,” Hajir said. “They must have practiced for a long time, to imitate slaves with such sincerity.”
Violence was brewing. Even the dreamers, high up in the shadows, sensed a change. They gazed at the collared Torth with a flicker of interest, as if passing from one nightmare into another.
“We are not mindless fools!” Hajir cocked his enormous bony head at the trio. “We have to act mindless when we obey, but down here, this is our city.” He made a sharp gesture with the bone spike on his head.
Even in the dim light, Kessa saw how terrified the three Torth looked. She sat up on her bunk, letting her legs dangle to the floor. Her first-level bunk was a privilege, because spirits, or luck, supposedly protected the few slaves who survived to old age. No one wanted to offend the spirits, so for the most part, slaves respected elders such as Kessa.
“Let’s take their clothes,” Hajir was saying. “We’ll see if they fight like slaves or Torth.” He turned to Weptolyso. “Are you going to protect them?”
Weptolyso looked worried, and Kessa understood why. He would be sentenced to death if he failed to protect and serve Torth. That imperative was ground into all nussians during their childhoods. “I request that you do not attack them while I am here.” He backed away. “I have no wish to injure you. But I must leave to patrol the hall.”
Hajir extended his triple-jointed neck, raising his head high in acknowledgement. “Go do your duty, Weptolyso.”
Other slaves took up the cry. “Go do your duty!”
A young ummin shouted, “They’ll kill us all!” but no one paid attention.
The collared Torth looked terrified. They’d backed against the wall. One of them kept speaking in that incomprehensible language. It must be a pretense . . . but Kessa began to have doubts. Why would a Torth pretend not to speak the common slave tongue? What would Torth have to gain by enduring hardships in order to bait slaves? She couldn’t imagine an answer.
“Wait.” Kessa slid off her bunk and approached the collared Torth.
“What are you doing, elder?” Hajir swung his neck to get a closer look at her.
Kessa folded her hands in front of her, making the sign of peace. “I want to try to communicate with them. What if they are being punished for something like helping slaves?”
The bunk-room burst into dispute. A collar did not make a Torth a slave. Kessa the Wise should not fall for such an obvious ploy.
“Kessa’s lost her wits.” That was Ghelvae, a surly little ummin. “If these Torth really had something to say, they’d speak so we could understand.”
Ghelvae often complained that he ought to be respected as an elder, although he wasn’t quite that old. Most elder slaves remembered the day he’d arrived, young and trembling. None remembered Kessa’s arrival. No one living, anyway. Many slaves suspected that she was nearly eternal, as long-lived as a Torth.
What does it matter? Kessa’s dark side whispered. They assumed that she was protected by spirits, but she ached all the time. Few slaves could imagine how old age felt. Once a window was washed, there was another to wash. Once a fruit was peeled, she had to do it again. Everything in life was monotonously repeated, until finding a friend became a grandly joyous event, even when that friend was sure to die.
Kessa had once known a slave whom she suspected was more ancient than herself. That slave was a husk who no longer remembered her own name, or how to hold a conversation. She had mechanically worked, slept, ate, and worked more. Eventually she died. Kessa shivered, and focused back on the present.
“Who can know the minds of Torth?” Hajir was saying. “Maybe this is how they entertain themselves.”
Kessa approached the three Torth, and they shrank back, as if afraid that an elderly ummin could hurt them. It was hard to believe that mind readers would cast aside their dignity like this. Kessa had never heard of such a thing. And such high ranks! Browns and Greens tended to own dozens of slaves. Blue? Kessa had only encountered a handful of Blue Ranks in her life, and they outranked the other colors.
The Blue Rank babbled in a pleading voice.
Weptolyso popped his spikes out. “Stay back, Kessa,” he said. “They could be waiting to attack someone.”
Kessa gave him a grateful look. What other guard would bother to know her name, let alone offer to protect a common ummin?
She stood within reaching distance of the Torth. Slaves hushed each other, eager to see what Kessa the Wise might do.
“Kessa.” She touched her chest and pronounced the short, informal version of her name, inwardly prepared for torturous punishment. Surely they’d give her a pain seizure for speaking.
Instead, the three Torth exchanged what sounded like an excited conversation. Then the Blue Rank pointed. “Kessa?” She spoke slowly and clearly. “Kessa.”
It chilled Kessa to hear her name from a Torth mouth. This was like stories about wind spirits calling a slave to die. Nevertheless, she clicked her beak in approval. “Kessa,” she affirmed.
The Blue Rank pointed to herself. “Vy.”
Kessa stared, stunned.
“The nameless don’t have names!” Hajir spluttered. “This is elaborate.”
A long-forgotten yearning reawakened inside Kessa. She would trade her life for a mere second of Torth knowledge. To know everything, to comprehend the unseen . . . maybe these collared Torth could teach her the secrets of the universe. Why was daytime always followed by nighttime? Did wind spirits really exist? Was it true that Torth traveled in the dark spaces between stars?
She just needed to puzzle out how to ask.
They taught her their names. Vy, Cherise, and Lynn. Fake or not, Kessa memorized them. She introduced them to Weptolyso, and they mimicked his name with varying degrees of accuracy, as if nussians were completely foreign to them. Weptolyso looked so skittish that Kessa wanted to laugh.
Next, she led them in pointing out simple things. Floor. Bunk. Rags. The collared Torth mispronounced words, but they offered their own foreign words, which Kessa repeated and memorized.
“Why are you learning their tongue-twisting words?” Hajir asked. “They’re keeping us up too late, so we’ll be tired and make fatal mistakes next work shift.”
Kessa gave him a withering look. “There are more efficient ways to get slaves killed.” She assessed the three Torth, who kept stumbling over pronunciations. “These three Torth have poor memories. Maybe they are damaged in some way.”
Hajir clicked his enormous beak. “Mind readers don’t need to memorize anything.”
“I think their mind reading ability may have been destroyed,” Kessa said, reluctant to bring it up.
Everyone began to talk at once, wondering if that was possible. A young ummin asked Kessa directly.
“If we lose our eyes, we cannot see,” Kessa said. “If our tongues are cut out, we cannot talk. Perhaps there is some organ on the Torth that can be removed.”
Hajir sounded skeptical. “I hope they will show you where it was.”
“Don’t think about that at work, Hajir,” Ghelvae said in his surly tone.
The three Torth still seemed eager to communicate. “Thomas?” the Brown Rank named Cherise said, holding her hand low to connote something short. She traced a line from her eyes, indicating a gaze. Kessa deciphered her repeated phrase. It must mean, “Have you seen Thomas?”
The Green named Lynn did something similar, holding her hand high up. “Ariock?”
“Remember their two companions?” Kessa addressed the bunk-room, excited. “They must be looking for them. Their names are Thomas and Ariock.”
This is folly,” Hajir said. “How many Torth-with-names are there?”
“I will ask around,” Weptolyso said. “Such odd Torth will not go unnoticed.”
“Don’t you have a hall to patrol?” Hajir asked.
Weptolyso snorted a threat. “Don’t push your luck with me.” But most of his attention was on Kessa and the three new slaves. Kessa imagined he was gathering dramatic details so he could impress other guards with the tale of befuddled slave-Torth. This event would surely be spread all over the city by the next sleep cycle.
“Come.” Kessa gestured for the three Torth to follow her to the bunks. “We must sleep, or our next work shift will be dangerous.”
Hajir sounded scandalized. “They don’t need lessons, Kessa.”
Ghelvae added, “They’ll probably shove you out of your nice ground-level bunk and take it for themselves.”
Kessa doubted that. Weptolyso seemed to have the same thought, because he said, “I think they’re damaged. They behave like half-wits. Perhaps this is how Torth get rid of their own rejects.”
Kessa gestured upwards, making sure the three Torth followed her gaze. It was hard to see the shelves cloaked in shadows along the rough ceiling. Emaciated slaves slept or died up there. Dreamers either starved slowly, or got lost in forgotten tunnels, or, most commonly, they made mistakes in front of Torth and died for it. Sure enough, some of the upper bunks were vacant.
The three Torth just stared. They seemed unwilling to sully themselves by climbing.
Perhaps they wanted to sleep on the filthy floor. Kessa nearly left them to it . . . but they looked so baffled, so lost, that she decided to take a further risk. She shoved the small one named Cherise.
Cherise squealed in surprise. Vy wrapped an arm around her, as if to protect her from the elderly ummin.
“You’re crazy, Kessa,” Ghelvae said.
The Green Rank named Lynn sat, as if too weak to stand any longer. She put her head in her hands and trembled. The sounds issuing from her throat were more aching than any Kessa had heard in a long time. She felt cold, listening. “These Torth have emotions.”
“Fake emotions,” Hajir said.
Part of Kessa suspected that Hajir might be right. Still, every sob from Lynn seemed to communicate a dreadful loss, and Vy and Cherise made comforting noises. All three curled up on the floor and held each other.
Hajir extended his neck, examining them. “Those materials look very serviceable and durable. I’ll divvy up their clothes. The big cloak is mine.”
Kessa shot him a vexed glance. “No one should take their clothes or push them off their bunks.”
“You’re not falling for this ruse, are you?” Hajir said, incredulous. “Torth can fake anything.”
“So far,” Kessa said, “they’ve not threatened anyone that I know of. Remember the Code of Gwat. We are not Torth. We do no harm without reason. Perhaps these three have protected slaves.”
Mutters echoed around the room, but a number of slaves backed Kessa up.
“I have seen a Torth like these before,” Weptolyso said.
Everyone focused on him.
“You’ve seen one like these?” Ghelvae demanded. “Really?”
Weptolyso settled against the doorway, making himself comfortable. “Shortly after I entered adulthood,” he said, “I was assigned to serve a Brown Rank. I traveled with him to many slave farms, factories, and cities. I rode with him in his luxury transport, which flew very fast. You cannot imagine the thrill. I was forced to punish slaves who shirked their duties, and I hated that. But that was only part of the time. Otherwise, I—”
“Get to the point,” Hajir said.
Weptolyso rumbled a warning. “On one of these trips,” he went on, “we visited a floating city. It was much like our city, but above a deep canyon wreathed in mist. It had outdoor streets with transparent railings. My owner was walking down a street, and I followed, of course. All of a sudden . . .” He widened his eyes and popped out his spikes for dramatic effect. “A nearby Torth staggered as if struck by an invisible hand. She fell to all four limbs and began to cry like a slave. Like those.” He gestured towards Lynn, Vy, and Cherise. “Her face became wet, too. I tell you, it halted traffic up and down the street.”
“I have never heard of such a thing.” Kessa tried not to sound too skeptical.
At least Weptolyso didn’t take her skepticism as an insult. “I know what I saw,” he said. “If I was telling a tale, I would have told it before. It gets even stranger.”
“How?” Hajir asked, his scornful voice full of skepticism.
“They murdered her as if she was a slave,” Weptolyso said. “Right there in the street, for everyone to see. My owner and all of the nearby Torth pulled on their gloves and shot her to pieces.”
The bunk-room went silent, processing the tale.
“Then all the Torth resumed walking as if nothing strange had happened,” Weptolyso said. “They walked on her remains.”
I may as well try to understand the moons and stars, Kessa thought, studying the newcomers. There is no telling what a Torth might do.
Ghelvae clicked his beak. “I have also heard of Torth killing one of their own.”
Everyone turned to him, surprised.
“I didn’t see it,” Ghelvae said. “The story comes from my elders on the slave farm, who heard it from their elders. According to them, a Brown Rank cried out and was killed where he stood.”
Kessa supposed she had heard a tale or two like that, although she figured they were about as credible as sand spirits and shape-shifters. No one ever saw such things. They heard about it from someone else, who heard about it from someone else, and the original tale-teller was invariably an unknown slave whom no one had ever met.
“I never believed it,” Ghelvae said. “But—” he nodded at the collared Torth—“there’s this.”
Weptolyso regarded the collared Torth. “I must make my rounds,” he said, reluctant, creaking to his feet and shuffling away. “I hope they are here when I return.”
Kessa wanted to exchange more words, but slaves who neglected sleep did not survive to her age. She left the three Torth and plodded to her bunk. Her aching joints fired up, then dulled down, as she settled beneath her thin rag of blanket.
Although she tried, she could not sleep right away. Other slaves kept eying the newcomers. Hajir lay on his bunk, but his eyes remained open, watching the three Torth huddled on the floor.
If they are truly slaves, Kessa thought, they will not last long.