Only children are happy.
– slave proverb
Children are disposable.
– Torth edict
Kessa suppressed a groan at the twinge of pain in her lower spine. That ache never quite vanished anymore. The window was at least eighty times broader than herself, and she had to wash all of it.
With an internal sigh, she heaved the bucket of soapy liquid to the next area and set her spindly arms into motion again. Her reflection stared forlornly back at her in the glass: an aged ummin with gray skin creased from indoor humidity. Rags swaddled her withered body. Her short beak had such a pronounced curve, it formed a semi-circle. That was a childish trait that used to make her feel cute, but in old age, it looked incongruous with her sunken cheeks.
She kept her hat properly pinned and folded, out of habit. She was too wrinkled to attract a mate in the slave zones.
Her arms ached so much, and she wanted to groan every time she straightened from the soapy bucket. Maybe she could risk a short rest?
A whisper of footfalls announced her owner.
Kessa emptied her mind of all thought but what she was doing. Her arms moved in a pattern. Up and around, then a fresh dip into the bucket, never mind her aches. It was best to live in the moment whenever a Torth was nearby.
Outside, the distant spaceport was generating even more aerial traffic than usual. Yellow clouds of sand particles billowed between stone skyscrapers, so the distant towers were obscured by haze. Although Kessa longed for that hot, crisp, dry outdoor air, she was grateful to have a personal owner. Otherwise she might be on a construction work crew, and at her frail age, outdoor labor meant death.
Soapy water collected into tears on the glass. Each one contained a miniature city trapped in a sphere. Each city was obliterated when the second cloth sopped over it.
Her owner stood directly behind her.
Kessa had to be extra careful to avoid bumping into her owner’s pristine golden turquoise robes. She watched her thin old hands, fascinated, as they moved the wet sponges up and down, then in a circle, alternately washing and drying. Maybe she ought to go and retrieve the stepladder, so she could reach the high-up sections of the window?
Climbing with the heavy buckets would make her whole body ache for days.
But that was a dangerous thought; a complaint. Kessa shoved it from her mind.
After an excruciating amount of time, the Torth woman waggled her manicured fingers in the “preen” gesture, reflected in the glass. Kessa gratefully dropped the sponge into the bucket and ran to retrieve the beauty kit from the powder room.
When she returned, she found her owner sprawled onto a plush divan, waiting with her electric-blue curls disarrayed. Golden hover-combs lay scattered on the floor. Kessa picked up the mess with quick ease, grateful that her owner favored sparse minimalism. Many Torth filled their luxurious suites with treasure.
Preening a Torth was less taxing than washing windows or floors, but it was far more dangerous. Kessa took pride in her expertise. She removed the last few combs from her owner’s hair, careful to catch the hair before it could fall with an audible sound. Then she began to gently brush.
Her owner sometimes rewarded Kessa with an early dismissal for silent admiration, so she admired how the light played on each steely blue corkscrew curl. So beautiful.
For the finishing touch, Kessa applied golden glitter to her owner’s eyebrows. That yellow color matched her owner’s irises, and a lifetime of serving Torth had given Kessa more than a few clues as to what Torth eye colors meant. Yellow Ranks were the most common and lowliest of the god-like Torth.
Pain wracked her body.
Kessa gulped back a yelp and barely managed to avoid smearing her owner’s face with glitter. For a confused instant, she wondered if the pain was a mealtime alert. Had she failed to eat enough during her previous wake cycle?
But this was a deeper pain. A punishment seizure. She must have offended her owner.
Kessa was merely a stupid slave who should never presume anything about a Torth. She curled her owner’s eyelashes, continually berating herself for being stupid, old, and clumsy. Self-punishment was a healthy habit, since it let owners know when their punishments were sufficient and could be ended.
The pain ebbed.
At last, her owner flexed four fingers in the dismissal gesture.
Kessa bowed and rushed to put away the beauty kit and escape the suite. Leftovers Hall was quite a hike from here. A Torth could speed across great distances on hovercarts, hoverbikes, or hoverchairs. But slaves were not permitted to drive vehicles or hitch rides, uninvited.
So Kessa ran.
Her toenails clicked alongside the clicks and footfalls of thousands of other slaves. Every slave knew that rushing was ideal, because an idle slave could be given ten reasons to run. Only Torth strolled at their leisure through the vast indoor boulevards.
When foot traffic slowed, Kessa assumed that some poor slave up ahead must be suffering death-by-pain-seizure. She had no stomach for such spectacles. There was an alternative route through a garden lounge, and she headed for that entrance, impatiently threading her way past larger species. She had to dodge around the thorny bulk of a nussian.
But tortured slaves usually screamed. The streets were silent.
Kessa slowed, seeing a Torth who leaned against the transparent railing, gazing down at the forum floor below. The stout figure seemed oblivious to the slaves who squeezed past him.
In fact, all of the Torth in sight were staring, even gawking, down towards the forum.
What could cause a Torth to gawk?
Kessa hesitated. Whatever was happening, it must be a Torth matter that had nothing to do with slaves. She ought to hurry to Leftovers Hall. If she missed a meal, she might make a fatal mistake at work. Nothing was worth that risk.
But Kessa was curious.
Despite her sensibility, despite her hunger, she made her way to the railing and peered downward.
A procession of hovercarts snaked through the crowd down there. The Torth in that procession were strange, attired in outlandish clothes. And one of them…
Kessa blinked, hardly able to process the size of a Torth in the central hovercart. He must be as tall as a nussian.
She blinked again, refocusing, unsure if she could trust her own eyesight. Was that gigantic Torth actually wearing a slave collar around his neck?
It looked like a collar, albeit a deactivated one, peacefully dark. Kessa had never seen nor heard of anything like that.
Three other passengers in that central hovercart wore slave collars, yet none were slaves. Dread and awe passed across their Torth faces. Kessa had heard folklore about Torth who acted like slaves, with emotions, but she had never suspected those tales held any truth.
Slave jostled past her, impatient to get to their meals, or their bunk-rooms, or their work shifts.
Kessa looked around to see if anyone else had noticed the weirdness taking place below. A few other slaves did look curious, but they wisely pushed onward, trying not to draw Torth attention.
Kessa ought to do the same. It was best to ignore this event. A slave could never understand Torth affairs, just as one could never learn why the sun rose every morning, or why the moons had cycles. All she could do was guess and wonder.
Suddenly, every window along the street flickered, and synchronized to show the exact same view: a close-up of the procession.
Traffic halted. Slaves looked at the windows, and Kessa looked with them, marveling at the close-up live feed of Torth who were playacting as slaves.
Kessa would have expected these Torth actors to be lowly Yellow Ranks. It seemed they were not. One was a Blue! Those were rare, and always wealthy beyond belief. Why would any Blue Rank agree to act like a slave?
The giant had an unknown eye color.
Kessa refocused several times, just to make sure she was seeing correctly. As far as she knew, there was no such thing as a purple rank. Purple was a taboo color among Torth.
There was one other strange Torth on that central hovercart. He wore no collar, yet he emoted like a slave. He sat in a strange contraption; a chair with wheels. And his eye color…
Kessa had heard of Torth with black eyes, yet she had never seen one. Until now.
She turned back to the railing, and studied the procession until it vanished from sight. Young slaves would undoubtedly corner her in slave zones, expecting wisdom from an elder. She expected to mediate debates. She would put forth her own theories and conjectures about this event.
If Kessa was influential enough—and if she was lucky—maybe her name would be remembered after she passed out of the realm of the living.