Those who make no effort to understand their enemies become enemies themselves.
– Nussian proverb
Kessa adjusted her hat folds in preparation for work. She listened to Cherise’s question in the slave tongue, and repeated it with corrections. “Where do children of the Torth dwell?”
Cherise nodded at the corrected grammar, and repeated the question in both languages.
While the humans straightened their grimy clothes, Kessa did her best to answer in the human language. “Torth do not have children.”
The humans gave her a pitying look, the way they did whenever they doubted common knowledge, which was often. Vy and Cherise spoke among themselves. Kessa listened carefully. She could understand a lot of the human language, after many languages sessions with them.
“They probably lock their kids in a prison somewhere.” Vy sounded dejected. She dutifully scrubbed floors and windows during their long work hours—sometimes Lynn forgot to work—but she looked dingier and sadder with every wake cycle that passed. All three of the humans wore grimy rags. Most of their fine clothes had been bartered away in exchange for better footgear and fresh food. They’d bundled their hair under scarves in order to hide it from dangerous slaves, and to fit in better with the slave population.
“That makes sense.” Cherise sounded disgusted. “They hate noise, and babies cry. But Thomas would know enough to be quiet. I don’t think they’d lock him up with other children.”
The humans often spoke of their world and their missing companions, especially the mind reader who would supposedly rescue them. Most of what they said ranged from fantastical to impossible. “Thomas is a child?” Kessa asked in the human language. “Truly?”
“Yes,” Vy, and Cherise nodded confirmation.
“That is very strange.” Kessa had been about to lead the way out of their bunk-room, but she found herself gawking in disbelief. She closed her beak. “I will tell other people. They may be more . . . more . . .” She searched for a fitting word in the human language.
“Helpful?” Vy guessed.
“Curious?” Cherise guessed.
“Curious.” Kessa liked that word, and she thought it fit better. “They may help more.”
She hurried out of the room, knowing the humans would follow, as always. They seemed to have poor memories for finding their way around the city. Anyhow, she didn’t like the way most of the bunk-room’s occupants looked at the humans. Vy kept returning to illegal topics no matter how often Kessa warned her not to.
A gang of brutish slaves blocked the tunnel. Hulking slaves from the place known as Mer Nerct leaned against the curved walls, their imposing heads balanced atop triple-jointed necks. Furry govki and lesser species lounged between them. A few ummins blocked the stinking sewage gutters.
Kessa hesitated. She’d seen vigilante gangs like this, and their purpose was always to rip apart slaves who had wronged a lot of people.
“I don’t think they’re here for us.” She gestured for the humans to stay where they were, while she timidly approached the gang. “Let me learn what they want,” she said in the human tongue. “I will signal if it is safe.”
Two of the gang members were familiar faces from her bunk-room. Ghelvae, the bitter old ummin, stood in front with his thin arms folded across his filthy rags. He looked smug as Kessa approached. “There she is,” he said to everyone listening. “Kessa the gullible idiot.”
Kessa didn’t bother to hide her impatience. Everyone in the city seemed to want to insult her. Slaves hassled the humans, throwing feces at them, and they gave Kessa a hard time whenever she blocked their attacks. It was nothing new. No matter how often she explained that the humans were friendly and harmless, most slaves refused to believe her.
“Will you let us through?” Kessa asked the huge nerctan who appeared to be the gang leader. “My owner may kill me if I am late to work.”
The gang leader lowered his bony head until he was near eye-level with her. “Everyone says your owner is lenient.”
Kessa clicked her beak in exasperation. True, her blue-haired owner allowed the three human slaves into her suite for work shifts alongside Kessa, although their collars glowed grayish-white, which meant they were owned by all Torth. Some owners would send them away.
She said, “My owner is accustomed to my hardworking friends.”
It sounded like a threat, but Kessa said, “Yes. Please let us through.”
The gang leader rotated his head so he could assess the humans from a distance.
“Kessa will believe anything they tell her,” a rust-colored govki said, its brown teeth poking up from its underbite.
“She’ll be more surprised than anyone when they remove those collars.” That came from Hajir, from her own bunk-room.
“It’s a shame that such a venerable elder has become such a witless fool,” Ghelvae said.
“Shameful,” another elder agreed in a creaky voice.
The Tunnels usually felt like home, dark and rank with scents. Now Kessa wanted the bright lights and open spaces of the city above. Onlookers forced the humans closer to Kessa, sealing the tunnel on both sides, so there was no escape. More onlookers gathered in doorways.
“We don’t have to stand by while she defends dangerous liars,” the gang leader said.
Now Kessa thought she understood the danger. Gangs targeted habitual liars, because false information could lead a slave to his or her death.
“The humans don’t lie,” she said, trying to shield them with her arm. “They come from a strange land, and they have strange beliefs—”
“A magical paradise where children stay with their parents and everybody sings and laughs whenever they feel like it,” Ghelvae cut in, scornful. “How can you believe such tripe?”
Hajir angled his huge head in a contemptuous way. “If such a paradise exists, Torth would ruin it.”
In her darkest moments, Kessa wondered if her human friends were actually lying Torth. Their toxic tales of freedom seemed designed to motivate slaves to work harder. During work shifts, she sometimes caught herself daydreaming about Earth, as if it was a real place that she could visit, like a trip to the Hover Harbor. Then she would feel queasy, as if she’d eaten something rotten. Slaves were too foolish and ignorant to rule themselves. The free land of Earth must be a myth. She would touch her hateful slave collar, reassured that its pokes and pinches kept her on a healthy schedule. Without it, she would make fatal mistakes. She would forget to eat and starve to death. Slaves needed to be taken care of. They needed owners. Vy could furtively whisper about escape, but she didn’t seem to realize that escape meant certain death. It would never lead to paradise.
“I cannot know where my friends came from,” Kessa said to the gang leader. “I have never seen the paradise of Earth. But the humans labor beside me every work shift, and I cannot imagine Torth scrubbing floors like industrious ummins.”
“Unless everything they do and say is a lie,” an onlooker said with contempt. “I can imagine a Torth doing anything.”
“Maybe Kessa thinks she’s like a Torth, all-knowing,” Ghelvae said in disgust.
Kessa recognized the Code of Gwat, which all good people adhered to. Slaves should never presume anything. Certainty was only for Torth and other gods. Ghelvae and the gang were implying that Kessa was violating the code, pretending to be a god instead of a slave.
She straightened her back, refusing to accept the insult. “We cannot read minds, so we cannot know truth,” she said, quoting the Code of Gwat. “I listen to these three humans. That is not the same as believing them or disbelieving them. I do not judge them. You are the ones who judge them, or misjudge them.” She faced Ghelvae. “Even if my friends someday reveal themselves to be Torth, no one will be harmed except for me.”
Ghelvae chuckled in a condescending way. “You believe them, all right,” he said. “And you know how toxic hope is. You know how it spreads. Everyone remembers that you used to be called Kessa the Wise, and some slaves continue to respect you, even if they don’t dare say it out loud. That is dangerous. If you believe that a magical Torth is going to come and set you free, then other slaves will be foolish enough to believe it.”
The crowd muttered with righteous indignation.
Kessa gripped Cherise’s and Vy’s hands to show that she was with them. She might not believe most of the things they said, but she did believe the most important thing. Humans were not Torth. And she knew that their missing friends were real people. They might even still be alive. Kessa had heard rumors about a bloodthirsty Torth giant who acted like a beast, and about an empty chair-with-wheels on display at a relic kiosk. She hadn’t translated the rumors for her friends. Such unsubstantial rumors would only add to their despair.
Cherise stepped in front of her, as proud and confident as a Torth. She spoke fluently in the slave tongue. “Slaves take risks to find the ones they love.” She glared at each gang member. “You all take risks. So do we. We are slaves.”
Her words silenced the onlookers completely. Soon whispers began. Kessa had never heard any of the humans sound so much like a slave, and yet look so much like a Torth. Cherise should have cowered, or at least lowered her head. Stony confidence was not a wise way to confront a gang.
One of the govki raised its lips in a sneer. “Loved ones,” it said, “are never Torth.”
“Thomas and Ariock are humans,” Cherise said with defiance.
Ghelvae imitated her overly confident posture, placing his sharp-fingered hands on his hips. “A mind reader is coming to rescue us,” he said in an airy tone. “A human named Thomas who can read minds and who comes from paradise.”
The gang leader scissored his beak in a threatening way. “There is only one word for someone who has that ability.”
Torth. Kessa inwardly agreed. She could imagine cities ruled by silly humans, but she could not imagine a friendly mind reader. That was the most troubling thing about her human friends. They seemed to sincerely believe impossible things. And Thomas was supposedly a child. Everyone knew that children were not allowed in cities. Every description of Thomas sounded like fantasies piled atop fantasies.
“If anyone has suffered because of my friends, I am truly sorry.” Kessa forced herself to face all the accusers. “But we never ask anyone to take risks or to approach Torth, and—”
“That means nothing, and you know it,” Ghelvae broke in. “Some fools will try to impress you, or try to impress each other. What do you suppose happens to slaves who seek your friendly mind reader?”
“We don’t all have lenient owners, like yours,” Hajir said.
Two hall guards hulked in the distance, paying attention to the mob. Guards rarely cared about vigilante killings, but Kessa hoped that one of them, Weptolyso, would intervene if the gang attacked. He often listened to her language sessions with the humans.
But he kept his distance now, and she had to remind herself that she had no right to judge anyone. A mere slave such as herself could not know the truth inside someone else’s mind or heart.
“Oh, and the friendly mind reader is going to rescue us soon.” Ghelvae made a show of looking around the tunnel. “Maybe he’ll come right now,” he said in a hushed tone, like a storyteller. “A friendly mind reader, eager to free slaves and transport us all to paradise.” He peered around. “Any time now.”
Kessa found it painful to look at Cherise, who searched desperately for her missing mind reader every chance she got. Sometimes Torth punished her when she lingered in crowded streets to study faces.
One of the onlookers, a fresh-faced ummin, said, “It sounds like the legend of Jonathan Stead.”
The gang leader rotated his neck joints, loosening himself for a fight. “I’ve heard enough lies and bedtime tales,” he said. “Kessa, your actions endanger the lives of impressionable young slaves. You and your friends will get someone killed unless you are stopped.”
“It’s even worse than you imagine,” Ghelvae said. “I’ve overheard one of those humans ask if ventilation shafts might be a way to escape the city.” He paused to let that sink in. “If they were real slaves, they would have been killed long before now.”
He was right. Kessa could not deny that. Cherise and Vy spoke of freedom so often, it was amazing they were still alive. Once, Vy had casually mentioned that she wanted to steal Torth weapons. Those sort of thoughts would get common slaves killed. A spirit of protection seemed to smile upon the humans, enabling them to say and think whatever they pleased.
Now the humans were whispering amongst themselves in their native tongue, ignoring the hundreds of angry-looking slaves all around them. Kessa heard them say ‘Jonathan Stead’ several times. They seemed familiar with it. Until now, they had reacted to slavery like newly hatched children, ignorant of every word, law, custom, and story. This was new. It almost seemed calculated, like a way to distract the mob.
Kessa reminded herself not to be so suspicious.
“What is the legend of Jonathan Stead?” she asked the young ummin. “They recognize the name.”