Every sound echoed in the sewers. Kessa waded with as little noise as possible, because the wretched slaves that survived in the stinking cesspools below the slave Tunnels were said to be cannibalistic. Were the humans really worth this much trouble? They would need to exchange their stinking rag outfits for fresh ones, or else a random Torth would likely kill them during a work shift.
“I’m sorry, Kessa,” Cherise said in her quiet tone.
Cherise was the only human who ever apologized anymore. The other two seemed to be forgetting how to speak. Lynn mutely sloshed after them, catatonic.
Vy had to be dragged. She babbled about freedom every time she spoke, and lately she kept repeating a rumor about a sewage canal that flowed into the desert. It was madness, but not even Cherise could slow her down.
For now, Vy let them lead her home, compliant and exhausted from searching, but Kessa suspected she’d try again during their next sleep period. And again. She’d seek freedom until it killed her. Only a fool would run after her in an attempt to save her.
Fool, Kessa cursed at herself. You old fool.
She turned to Cherise. “We must let Vy go next time.”
“What?” Cherise sounded affronted.
“She has the madness of hope.” Kessa tried to choose the best words in English. “She is becoming a dreamer.” No explanation was needed, since dreamers were common among slaves. The symptoms were always the same. Silence. Confusion. Delusions of escape or freedom.
“No.” Cherise stumbled, and had to steady herself on the wall. “You’re wrong. And even if . . . well, I’m not going to stand by while my sister runs off and gets lost in the sewers. That’s your way. It isn’t our way.”
Kessa tried not to sigh. She didn’t want to breathe any more of the stench than she had to. Cherise sometimes implied that humans followed some secret code of behavior, incomprehensible and unknowable to ummins, govki, and all the other slave species. As if humans were superior. Like Torth.
“You are slaves.” Kessa wished that Cherise would embrace that simple truth. Slaves who denied reality, like Vy, tended to become dreamers.
Distant voices echoed from around a corner, and Kessa tensed. All four of them had glowing collars because they were outside of their assigned bunk-room neighborhood during a sleep period. Any guard, gang, or cannibal might attack them.
But a flickering glow implied a rubbish campfire. The voices sounded jovial, and Kessa figured the unseen slaves were healthy enough to be civil. She led the way onward.
The humans drew unwanted attention, of course. Kessa kept a wary eye on the emaciated group of slaves who sat around a rubbish campfire.
“It’s those Torth slaves,” one of them said.
“The smuggler here was just telling us about them,” said another.
Kessa took a closer look, and recognized Pung, with his filthy rags and lopsided hat. A pile of moldy bones near him probably meant that he’d won a few rounds of gambling. He studied her and the humans with hooded eyes.
“Peace, Pung.” Kessa waded towards him. “How are you?”
“I’ve been owned,” he said.
“My condolences.” Kessa was secretly pleased. Pung would survive longer if he had value to at least one Torth. “Is that why I never see you anymore?”
Pung slid a murderous gaze towards the humans. “I suffer near Torth every work shift. I refuse to suffer with them down here, where I should be safe.”
Kessa was accustomed to stinging insults, but she found herself stunned. Pung, of all people, used to respect her. He used to like her.
“These are my friends,” she said. “They are a slave species known as humans.”
“Oh. My mistake.” Pung sounded disgusted. “You used to be smart enough to avoid stinking places like this, Kessa. How did they lure you here?”
If it had been anyone other than Pung, she would have stormed away. But he was clearly still smuggling food to desperate slaves in these forgotten sewage shafts. Of all people, he ought to understand risking his life for a friend. Kessa drove her sharp finger into his chest. “How dare you.”
He looked unnerved by her reaction.
“Would a Torth rescue her friend from the most dangerous parts of the Tunnels without a thought for her own safety? Would a Torth cry? My friends work alongside me every work shift, and they endure three times as many punishments as I do. They are exactly what they say they are. Insult them, and you insult me.”
One of the gamblers laughed derisively. “She’s not worth it, Pung.” He tossed a small bone into the game.
Kessa tugged Cherise and Vy to get them moving in the right direction. “Come on.”
Part of her wanted to beg Pung to listen. Friends were so valuable, it seemed a terrible waste to lose one who was alive and hale. But the humans had no other friends. She had made this choice many times.
“Kessa.” Pung sounded torn.
A moment later, he fell into step beside her. “Kessa,” he said. “Can’t you understand why I am concerned? Your friends claim that a storm god will rescue them. Or a Torth.” He gave her a worried look. “Everyone is talking about it.”
“I am aware.” Kessa touched his arm in gratitude for his concern. “I know that we are slaves, and we will die as slaves.” She lowered her voice, hoping that Cherise would miss the words in the slave tongue. “Reality seems to hurt them. They are very fragile.”
“That’s a nice way of saying that they are untrustworthy,” Pung said.
Kessa reconsidered her stance, because Pung was right. Liars and fragile-minded slaves were too dangerous to befriend. “You believe that sand spirits exist,” she said. “I have never seen nor heard a sand spirit. Should I judge you a liar, the way you have judged my friends?”
Pung seemed to think about it, pulling a tidbit of rotting fruit out of his rags as he walked. “You speak wisely, as always.” He took a bite, then passed her the remainder. “All right. Perhaps I have fallen from the Code of Gwat. Nevertheless . . .” He seemed to ponder his next words. “There is rot in their supposed facts. How can they know, beyond doubt, that their friend is the storm god disguised as a Torth, rather than an ordinary Torth?”
Cherise spoke fluently in the slave tongue. “Thomas is a human. We never claimed that he’s a storm god.”
Pung gave a start, realizing she had understood his insults. He recovered swiftly and moved to block her path. “I have a question for you.”
Cherise folded her arms in a stubborn posture. “Ask,” she told Pung.
They were nearing the more populated parts of the Tunnels, and Kessa heard the echoes of voices and foot traffic. “Cherise.” She switched to the human language. “You do not owe him your attention. He is only one obnoxious ummin.”
But Cherise continued to confront Pung, almost as puffed up as he was.
“Well.” Pung dragged out his question. “Tell me. What makes you certain that your missing friend is not a Torth?”
“Because he’s nice.”
Pung clicked his fingers together. “I see.” He continued to speak slowly, as if to a dullard. “And how do you know he was not pretending to be nice?”
Cherise gave him such a withering stare, she could have been a Brown Rank.
“Pung, this is insulting,” Kessa said. “How do you know I am not just pretending to be nice?”
“That’s different,” he said. “You don’t have the powers of a Torth. Answer this.” He poked Cherise with his sharp finger. “How do you know your friend was not a Torth acting like a . . . one of you, whatever you are?”
Cherise drew herself up even taller. She was a hand taller than Pung. “I lived with Thomas for many blinks of Morja. He would never hurt anyone. He can read minds, but he used that power to save lives.”
“Oh, that’s creative.” Pung looked disgusted.
Kessa clawed the air to either side of her face in exasperation. “We do not know everything. We are not Torth. It is not our right to pass judgment.”
“I know more than you think.” Pung kicked a bone out of his way, and hurried towards the dim light and babble of the mid-Tunnels.
Kessa stared at his back, wondering why he sounded so pained. This was not the Pung she remembered. Sometimes he chafed at his limits, all too aware of his small place in the world, but he wore good humor as proudly as he wore his lopsided hat.
Paranoia sometimes indicated a slave in the early stages of becoming a dreamer.
“Pung, wait.” Kessa hurried after him, into a populated alley. “Have you been feeling all right lately?”
He glanced at her with amused contempt. “I am fine. No periods of forgetfulness. No fits of unexplained crying. You should worry about yourself.” He glared past her, at the humans. “They spread toxic hope, and you’re too infected to realize it.”
Kessa brushed past him, afraid to speak, because that would reveal how wounded she felt. Was she the only slave who adhered to the Code of Gwat? Maybe she was insane, and maybe everyone else was correct to judge her that way.
As she made her way towards her neighborhood, she was dismayed to see a crowd, all murmuring and talking. The sickle-shaped heads of nerctans poked above everyone else, swiveling to report news. Hall guards loomed in the distance. That couldn’t be good. Multiple hall guards meant that a crisis was taking place.
Perhaps someone had attempted a gruesome suicide, or perhaps a gang had gone on a murderous rampage. Kessa held the humans back. They weren’t going to get to their bunk-room anytime soon, and perhaps they should just turn around and find a quiet shaft or alcove to sleep in.
“It’s Kessa!” someone shouted.
Eager faces turned towards her. The entire crowd seemed to transform at the sight of her and the humans.
“You need to come!”
“You won’t believe it!”
“Where were you?”
Kessa tried to back away, but slaves reached for her, and others blocked her retreat route. They must have heard a rumor about Vy trying to run away. That was illegal. Any hall guard with a particular vendetta against the humans would probably use it as a justification to murder them.
Weptolyso’s voice boomed above the rest. “Kessa! Finally!”
Slaves watched Kessa with pity. No one wanted this much attention from a hall guard. But they shoved Kessa forward, along with the humans, and even Pung. It seemed the smuggler wanted another chance to insult her and her friends.
Weptolyso and another nussian stood in an intersection of tunnels, blocking traffic to a standstill. The other guard was so massive, his spinal ridge pressed flat against the ceiling. He looked too large to be a hall guard. He must spend most of his time in the city above, as a sentry in a public area, or as a personal bodyguard to a high ranked Torth.
“What is wrong?” Kessa asked with caution. If she was lucky, these guards might just want her expertise at handling a crisis.
Weptolyso grinned at her, his wide mouth stretched with excitement. “We have found the giant!”
There was only one giant that the humans ever spoke about. Vy pushed forward, staring at both guards. “You mean you found Ariock?” Hope shone on her face like a fever.
“Yes,” Weptolyso said in a grand tone. “He is in the prison.”
Kessa hissed, wondering if any nussian ever thought before speaking. This news would impact her friends like a crushing block. It could destroy them. Kessa often wished that she’d never learned how her imprisoned mate, Cozu, had died.
“Say no more,” Kessa said urgently. “Weptolyso, please.”
Vy didn’t understand the slave word for imprisonment. “What is that?” she asked.
“It is . . .” Weptolyso switched to English. He had listened in on a few of their bedtime language sessions. “Bad place. Worse than—”
“Please do not tell them,” Kessa broke in.
“They have a right to know,” Weptolyso said in the slave tongue.
All three humans glared at Kessa, as if she’d betrayed them. “We have to know!” Vy demanded.
Weptolyso squatted, putting himself close to eye level with Kessa. “According to nussian rules of conduct, they must be told.”
“Truth hurts them badly.” Kessa held his gaze, trying to show how important this was. “They are fragile.”
“Knowledge is worth pain,” Weptolyso said.
Kessa recognized that as a proverb that his people lived by. He would stick to it, no matter what an elderly ummin said about it. “Stubborn hall guard.” She hung her head. “Stubborn humans.”
The other guard crouched down alongside Weptolyso for a closer view of the humans. Slaves had to get out of his way, bumping into each other.
“Yes,” the huge guard proclaimed in a voice that seemed to shake the tunnel walls. “These three are like the prisoner. He acts like them. He speaks like them. But he is as tall as me.”
Lynn burst into tears. She threw herself at the huge guard, and he jerked back, clearly afraid of an attack. But all Lynn did was hug him, sobbing against the plates of his armored skin. “Tell me where,” she begged in the slave tongue. “Tell me where I can find my son.”
Kessa winced. Very few guards would tolerate demands from a lesser slave.
Weptolyso gently tugged Lynn, peeling her away. “That is not possible.”
The massive guard straightened, his plates grinding against each other, spinal ridge scraping against the curved ceiling. “I have waited a long time to meet these . . . humans. What are your names?” He snorted a greeting. “I am Nethroko, and I am a prison guard.”
Cherise bowed her head to him, nussian style. “I am Cherise Chavez.” At least she had paid close attention to Kessa’s lessons. Nussians favored long, full names.
“Good to meet you,” Nethroko said.
“I am Lynn Dovanack.” Lynn focused on Nethroko as if he was the only thing that mattered. “My child is Ariock Dovanack. He is the prisoner. I will do anything if you take me to him.”
Nethroko tested the name. “Ariock Dovanack.” The syllables flowed like a nussian name, and he snorted with approval. “That is a good long name. Now, I have waited a long time to ask this. What was his crime?”
The humans stared as if confused.
“Crime?” Lynn’s voice trembled, and it seemed she needed to search for vocabulary in the slave tongue. “He committed no crime.”
“He must have done something to become a prisoner,” Nethroko pointed out. “I only wish to know. Did he help slaves to run away? Did he plot to kill Torth?”
“No.” Lynn sounded sickened. “He did nothing!”
“He didn’t even know the Torth existed,” Vy said.
Nethroko reassessed them with suspicion. “The number of prison guards has increased by a factor of ten. We watch him constantly. He is forced to fight and to kill every wake cycle. He must have done something that threatens Torth.”
Lynn looked lost, her shoulders slumped. Then she seemed to remember where she was. “No. Ariock would never hurt anyone.”
“He’s no danger,” Vy agreed. “Not to Torth, or to anyone else.”
Both guards shared a look of suspicion and bafflement.
“But he killed two Torth,” Nethroko said at last. “I was there. I had to restrain him.”