Excitement exploded around Kessa. Slaves told each other of monsters battling each other, and a giant prisoner who killed Red Ranks. All jumbled together, it made no sense.
“Ariock would never hurt anyone.” Delia stared at Nethroko, as if unsure whether she was dreaming or not.
One did not insinuate that a guard was a liar, no matter how friendly he seemed. “Please, good Nethroko,” Kessa said. “We beg to know what happened. Will you tell us?”
Nethroko puffed himself up, an uncomfortable feat in the tunnel. “It is quite a tale. Let me start with Hithiniesel. Have you heard of her?”
The name sounded nussian. “I have not had that honor,” Kessa said.
“She was a prison guard. A hard worker.” As Nethroko spoke, slaves settled down to listen. A few climbed onto other’s shoulders for a better view. “And focused,” Nethroko continued. “Strong. The sort of nussian who might live for a hundred blinks of Morja. Her mate was Lelnolaiso, and he was the same way.”
Kessa struggled to conceal her impatience. Nussians tended to ramble.
“Lelnolaiso vanished about five wake periods ago,” Nethroko said. “We suspect that Torth killed him.”
“To make Hithiniesel angry,” Weptolyso put in.
Kessa figured that was wrong. Torth didn’t need to be sneaky.
“This is my news.” Nethroko gave a threatening snort, then turned back to the crowd. “The Torth told Hithiniesel that the only way she would see her mate again was to kill the giant.”
Delia made a horrified sound.
“Hithiniesel doubted their words,” Nethroko told her in a kind tone. “She was not a fool. But the Torth did something to her. They made her act like an animal. Maybe they tortured her. I don’t know how they convinced her, but they did.”
Delia looked fully awake, eyes wide.
“There is an arena.” Nethroko spread his arms, constrained by tunnel walls.
As Nethroko detailed the battle between Hithiniesel and the giant prisoner, Kessa imagined each blow, heard the bestial grunts and screams. It all seemed like something from a legend, not recent news told by an eyewitness. And a Torth audience? Nussians liked to exaggerate, but if this was true, it was solid proof that Torth enjoyed entertainment. The idea made her shudder.
“They fought until both were exhausted,” Nethroko said. “Then the madness wore off. Hithiniesel huddled on the ground and grieved for her lost mate. The prisoner just stood there. Like this.” He made a reluctant posture. “And he spoke words that sounded like comfort in his language.” He snorted. “I don’t need to explain how the Torth reacted. Hithiniesel was doomed the minute she entered that arena, but she went well. Seven Torth fired at her. Seven blaster gloves blew her apart! She was dead before she hit the ground.”
Kessa hoped Nethroko would have the sense to stop talking. Ariock had failed to murder the nussian victim, and he’d spoken aloud within earshot of a Torth audience. They would not allow such a defiant prisoner to live.
“What happened to Ariock?” Vy asked in a small, scared voice.
“We chained him up, as usual,” Nethroko said. “Eight of us led him out of the enclosure. When we were halfway through the aisle…” Nethroko paused for effect. “He snapped. Like this.” His sudden, violent reenactment scared a few slaves backwards. “It pulled me off my feet. Me. Understand? I fell flat on my face. And three other guards also fell.”
“Ahga.” One of the slaves looked disbelieving. “No one has that kind of strength.”
“Are you calling me a liar?” Nethroko bent to face the challenger, who shrank back. “Yes, he got away from us, and although he was still chained up, he moved like a spirit. Fast!” Nethroko flexed the spikes on his arms, making serrated blades. “He stepped on a Red Rank before any of us could react, and snapped another’s head off. Like that.” He made a twisting motion. “It took all eight of us to restrain him. He was like Lissanyovo after he was forced to murder his sister.”
The crowd stared at Nethroko in awe. A few listeners, like Pung, looked reluctant to be caught up in the story.
“Dozens of Torth fled from him,” Nethroko said. “I saw fear in their eyes. Torth blood splattered all over me.”
“Why did you restrain him?” a mer nerctan slave yelled with derision. “You should have let him kill as many as possible!”
Nethroko searched for the challenger, and the mer nerctan cowered away. “What do you think?” Nethroko demanded. “If it were so easy to ignore my duties, I would kill all the Torth in this city! I could crush ten of them on my spikes. But I am fortunate to be alive to relate this news. A group of Red Ranks took turns torturing me. I would be a prisoner myself, if I’d hesitated to restrain him.”
“Okay,” the mer nerctan said in a small voice.
The humans exchanged horrified looks. “We need to get him out of that prison,” Delia said.
“You cannot,” Weptolyso said.
“We have to!” Delia looked from one guard to the other, as if waiting for them to volunteer their help. “Ariock would never kill unless…” She switched to her native language, frustrated, giving Kessa a pleading look. “Unless he’s being pushed to an unimaginable extreme. They must be torturing him horribly. We have to save him.”
“Slaves or guards who aid prisoners will become prisoners themselves,” Kessa pointed out. “No one can help him.”
The humans stared as if she’d spoken gibberish.
Someone repeated in a horrified tone, “They slaughtered a guard. For entertainment.”
Someone else said, “We are living in strange times.”
Slavery held few surprises. Kessa had dismissed the first appearance of the humans as an oddity, never guessing that it would yield a friendship. The legend of Jonathan Stead was another oddity, and now there was this odd news about Ariock the Torth slayer. Oddities seemed to be gathering weight, like pebbles collecting into an avalanche. If it was possible for a prisoner to actually kill Red Ranks, then why couldn’t a slave do so, too?
Kessa forced that insanely illegal thought out of her mind. She was just a slave. Of course stories were exciting and appealing, since she was stuck in monotonous, predictable routines from birth until death. Only a fool would hope that drastic change was possible for slaves.
Vy smacked her fist into her palm. “We can’t leave him to suffer.” She turned her pleading gaze to Nethroko. “Good Nethroko, will you show me where they keep Ariock? I will do anything you ask.”
Both guards eyed her with incredulity. Slaves looked at each other, no doubt wondering if Vy was brain-damaged.
Nethroko answered in a voice like a landslide. “Guards are at the mercy of Torth, as much as any ummin or govki. I would be killed if I helped you find him.”
Weptolyso bowed his head. “After Hithiniesel, none of us feel safe.”
Delia covered her face with her hands, as if she’d been struck a blow.
“The spirit of luck shone upon us today,” Nethroko said. “If Weptolyso hadn’t overheard me tell this story in his feasting hall, I never would have known how to find you. Humans.” He stared at them with fascination.
Weptolyso shifted. “I’ve asked about the giant every meal-time.”
“You know how it is,” Nethroko rumbled. Hall guards, prison guards, bodyguards, and forum sentries rarely got a chance to mingle. Each set of guards had their own feasting area.
“We can send Ariock a message,” Vy said, feverish with hope. “A written message, to at least let him know we’re alive!”
Kessa touched Vy’s arm. She didn’t know what “written” meant, but a message would earn death for everyone involved.
“We can write,” Vy was saying. She pantomimed an unfamiliar activity. “It’s like drawing. All humans know a code of symbols, and those represent words. The messenger doesn’t need to say anything. Ariock will understand what we send him.”
Kessa marveled at that. If the humans had all memorized a common code of symbols for words, they must have spent a long time learning it.
Pung had worked his way closer. “A silent form of communication,” he said, sarcastic. “Does everyone in paradise communicate silently with each other?”
“A slave could learn writing.” Vy rounded on him. “Your people probably had a writing system before the Torth enslaved you.”
“What do you mean, before they enslaved us?” Pung said. “We were always slaves.”
“I don’t think so.” Vy sounded frustrated. “Your ancestors must have been free.”
Whispered speculations ran through the crowd. Kessa used to fantasize about a time before Torth existed, but Vy sounded oddly certain about it.
“How do you know all this?” Pung asked. “Were you there, at the beginning of time?”
Cherise fixed him with a stare. “The Torth did not create everything. Is that what you believe?”
“Of course not.” Pung huffed. “The spirits created everything. And the spirits favor Torth.”
“The Torth favor the Torth.” Cherise sounded equally scornful. “They leech off of slaves. I’m sure they steal knowledge from slaves.”
“How can they steal knowledge?” Pung said, derisive. “It is not like eating a meal. They absorb it, but they don’t destroy it.”
Kessa expected Cherise to retreat, unable to answer. But her answer came strong and quick. “They made sure you never learned. They separate children from adults, and transfer them to cities. Why do you think they do that? They don’t want families to pass knowledge down from generation to generation.”
Speculations grew louder and more excited. Kessa looked for holes or inconsistencies in Cherise’s theory, but it seemed solid. Was it possible that a long-ago generation of slaves had been as knowledgable as Torth? Had ummins flown in vehicles? Had their ancestors known how to read minds? Kessa tried to imagine a world where slaves governed themselves, with no punishments, and no collars.
It would be like remaining a child forever. Eternal happiness.
Pung laughed with scorn. “Why would the spirits give freedom and power to ummins, then change their minds and let the Torth steal it from us?”
Cherise looked frustrated.
“Did we commit a crime?” Pung asked, his voice taunting. “A horrible crime that we must suffer punishment for, forever? That isn’t justice. That is a Torth’s cruel punishment. Would you have us believe that the spirits are all Torth?”
Slaves backed him up, pinning Cherise and Vy with accusing stares.
“We haven’t suffered as much as you,” Cherise said, turning to face the crowd. “But we suffer. No one here deserves this.” She tugged her collar.
The crowd quieted at the pain in her voice.
“We’re tired of being doubted.” Vy faced the crowd, pleading.
“Even on Earth,” Cherise said, “there is injustice. The spirits, if they exist, don’t favor anybody.”
“Good Nethroko.” Delia went to her knees. “I will do anything for you if you take a piece of cloth to Ariock. I will write on it.”
Nethroko gave her a pitying look. “I do not think he sees or hears except when the Torth want him to. He wears a helmet. Torth and guards watch him from a viewing room, even when he sleeps. He spends most of his time chained in a small cell.”
Delia looked dazed.
“No other prisoner is watched like this,” Nethroko continued. “Or permitted to live this long. Henyalto, the oldest guard, said this prisoner has lasted ten times longer than any other.” He creaked as he leaned down. “Are you sure you have no idea what he might have done?”
Delia shook her head.
“Nethroko,” Vy said. “I believe there are … false eyes … in the room where Ariock sleeps. That’s how the Torth watch him. What if you found those false eyes and covered them? Then we could sneak in and take off his helmet.”
Nethroko appraised the humans again. “I have given this much thought.” He inhaled deeply, causing hats to flutter. “More than is healthy. Ariock Dovanack slew two of the Torth that murdered my friend Hithiniesel. His strength is legendary. I would give my life to free him, were it possible. But nobody’s life can free him. A message will only hurt him. Even a message on a blessed piece of cloth. I am sorry.”
Kessa tugged her friends, since their sleep period had begun. “A message is not worth the life of the messenger,” she said. “I am sorry. Ariock is gone forever.”
Vy yanked her arm away. “What is wrong with you?”
Kessa wondered why she felt ashamed. Toxic hope festered in the humans, and this news had ruined what little common sense they had. It would almost certainly lead them to death.
The two guards dipped their heads, nussian style, to each other. “Visit my feasting hall sometime,” Nethroko called.
Weptolyso swung his head in a friendly snort. “I hope to see you again. Thank you for bringing this news.”
The humans looked broken. Tears ran down Vy’s dirty cheeks.
As the crowd dispersed, Kessa remained where she was. The humans were like children enchanted by their own fantasies, and every slave knew someone who had died due to such fantasies. The humans said that slaves could communicate silently, and steal power from Torth, and that long-ago slaves used to be free, and other crazy things … but one of them was a giant who had killed two Red Ranks.
Kessa clicked her sharp fingertips together, weighing the risks and possibilities of sneaking into the prison.