Kessa sat up on her bunk shelf. The whole city had come to a standstill for that weird procession, but she had never imagined that the falsely collared Torth “slaves” would carry their play-acting this far.
Torth did not belong in a bunk-room.
Torth did not belong in the slave Tunnels at all. It was monstrously unfair. Slaves needed to be able to talk or sing or nuzzle each other every once in a while. Surely that was why the Tunnels existed. If slaves were forced to be obedient even here…? The city would devolve into chaos.
No one quite dared to speak. Not in the presence of Torth.
Weptolyso, the hall guard, snorted. “These Torth,” he said in his gravelly voice, “are to be treated as slaves.”
The three Torth stared as if they hadn’t understood a word he said. They looked terrified.
But that had to be a sham. Their eye colors marked them as middling and upper ranks. Even if they had committed some mysterious crime against their own brethren, they would not be sentenced to slavery.
They were gods. Kessa had never heard of gods becoming slaves.
She scooted to the edge of her bunk, so her legs dangled just above the floor. Her first-level bunk was a privilege. Spirits, or luck, honored the few slaves who survived to old age, and nobody wanted to offend the spirits. Therefore, elders such as Kessa garnered respect.
She decided to risk speaking. “Weptolyso,” she said. “What rank commanded you to treat these three like slaves?”
Weptolyso filled the doorway with his thorny bulk. “One with white eyes told me.”
White eyes meant the highest authority. No one lower could countermand this order.
“And,” Weptolyso said, “I have seen them suffer punishments.” He grinned, displaying his fine array of teeth. “Other Torth stole jewelry from them. They did not fight back, or punish anyone.”
That was hard to believe.
Yet the three Torth-wearing-collars did not punish Weptolyso for speaking out loud. They merely stood, huddled together, like youths fresh off a slave farm.
Murmurs broke out.
Perhaps this was a twisted hoax; a way for Torth to find out how stupid slaves were? Everyone agreed that Weptolyso was a fine example of his species, but nussians could be gullible. Perhaps he had misinterpreted the situation?
“Peace, peace!” Weptolyso boomed above the ruckus. “Listen to me. I heard them speak to each other in an unknown language, as if they are slaves.”
As if to prove his point, the tall Torth with rust-colored hair babbled something. She tugged at her slave collar and repeated the syllables, which sounded pleading.
Many slaves, when they arrived fresh off a slave farm, had a unique language in addition to the common slave tongue. Kessa could still remember the swishy dialect of her childhood, although she had forgotten much of the vocabulary.
No matter where a slave grew up, no matter what strange accents they arrived with, every child learned the common slave tongue. A Torth would surely know it. Torth knew everything.
“This is foulness!” Hajir, the only mer nerctan in the bunk-room, leaped off his shelf and landed with a heavy thud.
Other slaves jumped. A mer nerctan could hurt smaller people with ease, by extending his jointed neck and swinging his bony head.
“They’re baiting us,” Hajir said. “They must have practiced for a long time, to imitate slaves with such authenticity. As if we are mindless fools!” He cocked his enormous head at the trio. “We have to act mindless in the upper city. But down here? This is our city.”
Slaves voiced angry agreement.
“We won’t fall for this trick!”
Violence was brewing. Even the dreamers, high up in the shadowy reaches of the uppermost shelves, sensed a change. They gazed at the collared Torth with a flicker of interest, as if passing from one nightmare into another.
“Let’s take their clothes,” Hajir said. “Those materials look serviceable and very durable. The big piece is mine!”
Even in the dim light, Kessa saw how terrified the three Torth looked.
Hajir stalked towards them. “We’ll see if they fight like slaves or Torth.”
Weptolyso snorted a warning. “I request that you do not attack them. I have no wish to injure you.”
“Are you going to defend them?” Hajir gave the hall guard a challenging glare.
“It is my duty, as a guard,” Weptolyso replied.
The imperative to protect and defend Torth was ground into all nussians during their childhood training. That was common knowledge. Any guard who failed in that duty would be sentenced to death.
“However…” Weptolyso backed out of the doorway. “I must leave to patrol the hall.”
Hajir extended his jointed neck, holding his head aloft in a sign of acknowledgement. “Go do your duty, Weptolyso.”
Other slaves took up the cry. “Go do your duty!”
A young ummin shouted, “They’ll kill us all!” but no one paid attention.
The collared Torth backed against a wall. One of them kept speaking in that incomprehensible language.
It must be a pretense … yet Kessa began to have doubts. Why would a Torth pretend ignorance of the common tongue? What would a Torth have to gain by enduring the same hardships shared by slaves? She could not imagine satisfactory answers.
“Wait.” Kessa slid off her bunk and approached the collared Torth.
“What are you doing, elder?” Hajir swung his neck to get a closer look at her.
Kessa folded her hands in front of her, making the sign of peace. “What if they are being punished for something like helping slaves? I want to try to communicate with them.”
The bunk-room burst into dispute. A collar did not make a Torth a slave. Kessa should not fall for such an obvious ploy.
“Kessa has lost her wits.” That was Ghelvae, a surly little ummin. “If these Torth really had something to say, they’d speak so we could understand.”
Ghelvae often complained that he ought to be respected as an elder, although many elders remembered the night he had arrived, trembling, fresh off a slave farm.
No one remembered Kessa’s arrival. No one living, anyway. Some slaves whispered that she was as long-lived as a Torth.
What does it matter? Kessa’s dark side whispered. People assumed that she was protected by spirits, but she ached all the time. Few slaves imagined how old age felt. Once a window was washed, there was another to wash. Once a fruit was peeled, she had to do it again. Everything in life was monotonously repeated, until finding a friend became a grandly joyous event, even when that friend was sure to die.
Kessa had once met an ancient husk of a dreamer who no longer remembered her own name, or how to hold a conversation. That elderly slave had mechanically worked, slept, ate, and worked more. Did anybody care what her name used to be? No.
Eventually, according to rumors, the mindless elder got punished to death. She must have made one too many mistakes at work. And no one had cared. No one mourned her, except for Kessa.
“Who can know the minds of Torth?” Hajir was saying. “Maybe this is how they entertain themselves.”
Kessa approached the three Torth. They shrank back, as if they were afraid of an elderly ummin.
It was hard to believe that mind readers would cast aside their dignity like this. And these were high ranks. Browns and Greens tended to own dozens of slaves. Blue? Kessa heard rumors that Blue Ranks lived in palatial suites, tended to by hundreds of slaves and bodyguards. Their favorite slaves wore crisp uniforms instead of rags.
This Blue Rank babbled in a pleading voice.
Weptolyso popped his spikes out. “Stay back, Kessa,” he said. “They could be waiting to attack someone.”
Kessa gave him a grateful look. What other guard would bother to know her name, let alone offer to protect a common ummin?
She stood within telepathy range of the collared Torth.
Slaves hushed each other, eager to see what Kessa the Wise might do.
“Kessa.” She touched her chest and pronounced the short, informal version of her name. Inwardly, she braced herself for punishment. They would probably give her a pain seizure for speaking.
Instead, the three Torth exchanged what sounded like an excited conversation. The Blue Rank pointed. “Kessa?” She spoke slowly and clearly. “Kessa.”
It chilled Kessa to hear her name from a Torth mouth. This was like a story about wind spirits calling a slave to die.
Nevertheless, she clicked her beak in approval. “Kessa,” she affirmed.
The Blue Rank pointed to herself. “Vy.”
Kessa stared, stunned.
“The nameless don’t have names!” Hajir spluttered. “This is elaborate.”
A long-forgotten yearning reawakened inside Kessa. She would trade her life for a mere second of Torth knowledge. To know everything, to comprehend the unseen … maybe these collared Torth could teach her the secrets of the universe?
She wanted to know why daytime always followed nighttime. Did wind spirits really exist? Was it true that Torth traveled in the dark spaces between stars?
She needed to puzzle out how to ask.
The three strange Torth taught her their names. Vy. Delia. Cherise. Fake or not, Kessa memorized them.
She introduced them to Weptolyso, and they mimicked his name with varying degrees of accuracy. Weptolyso looked so skittish, Kessa wanted to laugh.
Next, she led them in pointing out simple things. Floor. Bunk. Rags.
The collared Torth stumbled over pronunciations, but they offered their own foreign words, which Kessa repeated and memorized.
“Why are you learning their tongue-twisting words? It’s a ruse!” Hajir sounded scandalized. “They’re keeping us up late. They must want us to be tired, so we’ll make fatal mistakes next work shift!”
Kessa gave him a withering look. “There are more efficient ways to get slaves killed.”
Other people muttered in agreement.
“These three Torth have poor memories,” Kessa observed. “Maybe they are damaged in some way?”
“Even if they are brain-damaged,” Ghelvae said, “Why would gods need to memorize anything? They should know it all.”
That was true. Torth could not be surprised. Torth knew every secret. That was what made them gods.
Kessa spoke the obvious conclusion, wanting to mention it before Hajir or anyone else could rile up a mob. “I think their mind reading ability may have been destroyed.”
Everyone began to talk at once. Was that possible? Could the gods lose their godly powers?
“If we lose our eyes, we cannot see,” Kessa pointed out, in answer to a question. “If our tongues are cut out, we cannot talk. Perhaps there is some organ on the Torth that can be removed?”
“Well,” someone said, “I hope they will show you where it was.”
“We had better not think about this at work,” Ghelvae said in his surly tone.
The three Torth still seemed eager to communicate. The Brown Rank repeated a couple of alien syllables, “Tomm Uss,” several times. She squatted, and used her finger to push grime around on the floor.
A picture emerged from the grime.
It was sketchy and vague, but nonetheless, Kessa gasped with delighted recognition. “She is asking about her companion! The one in the chair with wheels!”
“How many Torth-with-names are there?” Hajir grumbled.
The Brown Rank sketched a large figure. Her companions named the giant, their tones pleading. “Arr ee ock?”
“Has anyone seen their missing companions?” Kessa asked the bunk-room. “Thomas and Ariock?”
“This is folly,” Hajir said.
No one offered a useful answer. Kessa turned to Weptolyso, her brow ridges raised in inquisitiveness.
“I will ask around,” the hall guard said. “I am sure someone in the city has seen them. Such oddities will be noticed.”
“Don’t you have a hall to patrol?” Hajir asked.
Weptolyso snorted a threat. “Don’t push your luck with me.” But most of his attention was on Kessa and the three new slaves. Kessa supposed that he was gathering dramatic details so he could impress other guards. News about the befuddled slave-Torth would be spread all over the city by the next sleep cycle.
“Come.” Kessa gestured the three Torth towards the bunks. “We must sleep, or our work shift will be dangerous.”
“They don’t need lessons,” Hajir said.
Ghelvae added, “They will probably shove you out of your nice ground-level bunk and take it for themselves.”
“I doubt that,” Weptolyso said. “They behave like half-wits. I think they must be damaged.”
“Maybe this is how Torth get rid of their own rejects,” Hajir said.
Kessa gestured upwards, making sure the three Torth followed her gaze. It was hard to see the shelves along the rough ceiling, far from the recessed lights. Emaciated slaves slept or died up there. Dreamers either starved slowly, or got lost in forgotten tunnels. Or, most commonly, they made mistakes in front of Torth and died for it.
Sure enough, some of the upper bunks were vacant.
The three Torth just stared. They seemed unwilling to sully themselves by climbing.
The Green Rank named Delia sat, as if too weak to stand any longer. She put her head in her hands. The sounds issuing from her throat were more aching than any Kessa had heard in a long time.
Hajir extended his neck, examining them. “Let’s divvy up their clothes.”
Kessa shot him a vexed glance. “No one should take their clothes or push them off bunks. I believe these Torth have emotions.”
“Fake emotions,” Hajir said.
Part of Kessa suspected that Hajir might be right. Yet every sob from Delia seemed to communicate a dreadful loss.
Vy and Cherise made comforting noises. All three curled up on the floor and held each other, looking as baffled and lost as any newly collared city slave.
“So far,” Kessa said, “they have not threatened anyone. Remember the Code of Gwat. We are not Torth. We do no harm without reason.”
Mutters echoed around the room, but a number of slaves backed Kessa up.
“I have seen a Torth behave like this before,” Weptolyso said.
Everyone focused on him.
“You’ve seen this?” Hajir demanded. “Really?”
Weptolyso settled against the doorway, making himself comfortable. “Shortly after I entered adulthood,” he said, “I was assigned to serve a Brown Rank. I rode with him in a luxury transport, which flew very fast. You cannot imagine the thrill. We landed on various slave farms, where I was obliged to punish slaves who shirked their duties. I hated that. Anyway, I—”
“Get to the point,” Hajir said.
Weptolyso rumbled a warning. “On one of those trips,” he went on, “we visited a city that straddled a deep canyon, wreathed in mist. It had outdoor streets with transparent railings. My owner was walking down a street, and I followed, of course. All of a sudden…” Weptolyso widened his eyes and popped out his spikes for dramatic effect. “A nearby Torth staggered! She acted as if struck by an invisible hand. She fell to all four limbs and began to cry like a slave. Like those.” He indicated Delia, Vy, and Cherise. “Her face became wet, too. I tell you, it halted traffic up and down the street.”
“I have never heard of such a thing,” a slave said.
Kessa had actually heard tales about Torth who cried out, or who suddenly behaved like slaves. Until now, she had figured they were as credible as legends about sand spirits and shape-shifters. No one ever saw such things. They heard about it from someone else, who heard about it from someone else, and the original tale-teller was invariably an unknown slave whom no one had ever met.
Weptolyso seemed to accept the implied insult. “I know what I saw,” he said in a mild tone. “If I was telling a tale, I would have told it before.”
“What happened to the crying Torth?” Kessa asked.
“Other Torth murdered her,” Weptolyso said. “Right there in the street, for everyone to see. My owner and all of the nearby Torth pulled on their gloves and shot her to pieces.”
The bunk-room went silent, processing that shock of an ending.
Kessa studied the newcomers, and wondered how many sympathetic Torth existed, if any. Why were these three merely sentenced to slavery? Why weren’t they executed?
Kessa might as well try to understand the stars. There was no telling what a Torth might do.
“After that,” Weptolyso went on, “all the pedestrian Torth resumed walking, as if nothing had happened. They walked on her remains.”
Ghelvae clicked his beak. “I have also heard of Torth killing one of their own.”
Everyone turned to him, surprised.
“I did not see it,” Ghelvae admitted. “The story comes from my elders on the slave farm, who heard it from their elders. According to them, a Red Rank was killed where he stood. I never believed it. But—” he nodded at the collared Torth—“there’s this.”
Weptolyso regarded the collared Torth. “I must make my rounds,” he said, reluctant, creaking to his feet. “I hope they are here when I return.”
He shuffled away.
Hajir climbed onto his bunk, but he eyed the three Torth like a predator sizing up a meal.
Slaves who neglected sleep did not survive to old age. Kessa reluctantly said goodnight to the three Torth and plodded to her bunk. Her aching joints fired up, then dulled down, as she settled beneath her thin rag of blanket.
Although she tried, she could not sleep right away.
If they are truly slaves, she thought, they will not last long.