The garden boulevards were devoid of traffic. Pung realized that the desert ceremony must have forced everyone to get onto roughly the same sleep schedule, so his owner was able to speed unimpeded. Pung had to run in order to keep up with the hoverchair.
Not everyone slept, of course. A Kemkorcan slave rippled in the distance, swimming on feathery limbs. A chubby govki raced past, top heavy as it waddled on two of its six limbs. Here and there, distant Torth sat in lounges or strolled together, but Pung’s owner kept managing to avoid them, picking the least traveled alleys.
The sleeping city gave Pung a bold feeling, like he was winning a game against the toughest gang boss in the Tunnels. He was doing something illegal while most Torth slumbered, unaware.
Soon they arrived in the garden atrium entrance to the palace. It always smelled sweet, with flowers blooming in bunches. Water flowed through channels between sandstone floor tiles. Golden chandeliers lit the foliage, with petals like flowers. Some gardens felt intimate, but this one seemed open to the city air, so vast that the farthest vine-wreathed pillars were hazed by distance.
Normally, the nussian guards would escort a guest to the fat Torth who resided here. But the eight guards who approached sized up Pung’s owner with their beady eyes, and their spikes bristled in a threatening way. They must have orders to not let him pass.
“Guards.” His owner spoke in an arrogant tone. “Line up here.” He pointed nearby.
The nussians bristled even more. They would only obey their owner or a higher rank, and Pung kept his head down, wishing he dared to hide. The guards would surely alert their owner about this.
“Tomorrow, I will no longer be a Yellow Rank.” His owner lifted his chin in an imperious manner. “And I won’t have time to deal with the likes of you. Those who refuse to comply will be thrown in prison.”
A few of the guards glanced at each other. They must have seen this Yellow Rank during the ceremony in the desert, and he’d had a place of honor, seated among Torth chieftains with white eyes. In fact, he seemed to have led the ceremony. And his voice was unusual, not raspy and stuttering, the way most Torth sounded when they spoke out loud. He was as fluent as a chieftain.
The guards shuffled nervously. Their owner had always treated this particular Yellow as a high rank, almost as her equal. And she herself had risen rapidly from Yellow to Blue. His claim might be plausible.
“Line up!” the Yellow commanded with all the attitude of a Red Rank. “Now!”
The guards tromped into a row with frantic haste, forming a wall of armored chests. Ignoring a high rank would be fatal.
The Yellow had to lean back in order to look up at the nussians, but he floated along, inspecting each guard in turn. Despite the iridescent yellow color of his eyes, his gaze had the cold intensity of a high rank. The guards squirmed.
After a moment, the Yellow seemed to reach a conclusion. He swung his stare into Pung, who couldn’t help but flinch. That stare was almost a physical force.
“In the swamp zone,” his owner said, “there’s a ventilation shaft. One of these guards will guide you to it. Explore that shaft and collect any contraband supplies that you find.” His fingers moved subtly, his hoverchair rotated so that only Pung saw his hand signals. Fetch three items. Be discreet.
For a fleeting instant, his owner looked vulnerable, like one of the humans. But maybe Pung had imagined it. His owner was imperious again, pointing at two of the guards. “You. You. Resume your duties.” He pointed to a sleek female guard. “You, guide my slave to the specified shaft.”
She bowed to acknowledge the command, and loped on all fours towards the inner palace. Pung ran to keep up. He had been worried about what slaves would think of him entering with an empty tote bag and leaving with the bag full, but now he had a perfect excuse. They would assume it was proof that a guard had illegally hidden contraband.
Behind them, his owner said, “The rest of you, go inside and send every guard to me for a mind probe. Don’t let any escape.”
His emphasis caused guards to stampede past Pung. The poor guards must be desperate to prove their own innocence, and to expel whichever guard turned out to be guilty, so they wouldn’t lose their lives. They probably wouldn’t even visit their owner until it was too late. Anyone would assume that she already knew what was happening, and that she’d delegated this task to an ambitious subordinate. Pung marveled at his owner’s boldness. Nussians were gullible, but even ummins would fall for this ploy. He hoped, for their sake, that their owner was lenient.
It felt wrong to enter the glittery, well-lit palace with no chores to do, and no Torth to keep them law-abiding. The other guards spread out in different directions. Soon Pung was alone with his guide. She ignored him, the way most guards ignored ummins. Collared species were supposedly “less” than nussians in every way that mattered.
She also ignored whispered conversations from the uniformed slaves who trimmed hedges and swept floors. Pung had heard of relaxed work shifts, but he had never actually met a palace slave, since they slept in palaces rather than in the Tunnels. All this ambient noise might be normal. They probably had a system of signals to warn each other when a Torth was approaching.
What an enviable life!
He nearly tried humming out loud, just to see how that much freedom felt. But he needed to remain generic-looking and unmemorable, so he stayed quiet and kept his head down. Even the toughest guards in the city would admire him if managed to steal from an Indigo Blue and live to talk about it.
His guide paused when she saw another gigantic nussian. “Go to the entrance atrium,” she told her fellow guard in a rumbling voice. “There is a Torth there, probing minds to find a criminal amongst us. He commanded that every guard go out to meet him.”
That should have been enough to send the guard rushing on his way. Pung hopped off the path to avoid getting trampled by accident.
But the guard only gave her a sour look. “Duty compels me to patrol these flower gardens,” he said.
The female guard puffed up. “If you refuse to go, everyone will suspect you of being a criminal.”
He snorted a challenge. “I don’t obey commands from you.”
The female studied him with suspicion. “You obey guards on errands sometimes, just like I do. Why are you truly refusing?”
The crusty guard bristled, spikes popping out. “I don’t believe that one lone Torth is confronting every guard in the palace. There are forty-seven of us. If one guard really is a criminal, then that desperate criminal will crush the lone Torth before he can use his blaster glove. Why would a Torth put himself in that position? Torth have a lot of power, but they are not brave.”
Pung inwardly admitted that this was a good argument. The crusty guard should probably be stationed somewhere more important than a flower garden.
The female guard narrowed her reddish eyes. “Do you honestly believe that a Torth just lied to eight guards?”
The crusty guard backed down. True enough, when Torth spoke out loud, it was only for the purpose of giving commands. They never told lies or stories. That simply was not how Torth behaved. Until now, Pung had never heard of a Torth telling a lie.
Except . . . his owner had not spoken any lies. He had been manipulative and deceptive, but he had not said anything untrue. Strange.
“Look,” the female guard said, gesturing at Pung. “He commanded this little slave to gather evidence.”
“I just don’t believe that a lone Torth would confront so many guards.” The crusty guard sounded sullen. “That is not normal.”
The argument might go back and forth indefinitely, and Pung didn’t want to displease his owner. “Honorable guards,” he said timidly, facing the stone floor. “May we please continue to that shaft?” He aimed a beseeching look at his guide. “My owner is monstrously cruel, despite how he looks. He will kill me if I fail.”
The crusty guard growled with frustration and fear. “Oh, very well.” He shuffled away, towards the atrium. “I will go and prove that I am not a criminal.”
His guide grew less bristly. Soon she was loping down the winding walkway.
“That was old Yomtalo,” she told Pung. “He has served our owner since before she was a Yellow Rank, and I suppose he is bored. Our owner never does anything fun or adventurous.”
“That is unfortunate.” Pung tried to sound sympathetic. He wished he had a boring owner.
“We all want to serve Red Ranks.” She led Pung beneath a mossy balcony, where bugs chirped in a soft chorus, and fetid water dripped from pipes. “There it is.” She pointed to an industrial shaft.
“Thank you.” Pung stepped into the darkness.
“Good luck, ummin.” The guard hurried away, leaving Pung alone, and grateful for any luck that the spirits might deem him worthy of.