When Pung crept through the atrium with the bulging tote bag, his owner looked triumphant, as if he had won a battle.  But that look was only in his eyes, and gone within an instant.  He was otherwise slack and expressionless.

“Guard your owner well,” he told the humongous guards, and gestured a dismissal.

Pung leaped aside so the guards could stampede past him, racing each other in their haste to return to their duties.  It would never occur to them that their owner had fallen asleep from a potion wielded by a sneaky ummin.  None would dare wake her.

His owner beckoned.

Pung hesitated, unwilling to get within range of a deadly punishment.  His owner no longer behaved in any semblance of a predictable way.  Although Pung had completed a near-deadly task like a hero in a legend, what was next?

Instead of demanding the stolen items, his owner rotated and floated away at a rapid pace.  It was as if he didn’t care about all the risks they had both just taken.  He shot through the gate and out of sight, on his way to somewhere unknowable.

That left Pung standing in the garden atrium with a bag full of stolen valuables.

He might as well be trash left to rot in Leftovers Hall.  Without any Torth nearby, he looked like an unowned slave; a target for any Torth passersby in the city streets.  He began to chase after his owner.  For a moment, he considered trying to evade everyone in the city and make his way directly to the Tunnels, but the spirits had surely already graced him with all the luck he was ever going to get.  He dared not risk getting a mind probe while his clothes and bag were stuffed with smuggled items, including technology that slaves could die for touching.

With the streets so empty, his owner sped at top speed down ramps and bridges.  Pung began to run out of breath.  Just as he became certain that he would lose sight of the silver hoverchair, his owner swerved into an empty alcove.

Panting, Pung followed.

“Give me the three items.”

The Yellow floated amidst neon lights, expectant.  He had apparently never doubted that his slave would follow and obey.

Pung struggled to hide his resentment.  Then he wondered why he had to be servile, when he clearly had a little bit of leverage.  Maybe he should make his owner work to obtain the stolen items.

“I will give you a reward,” his owner whispered.  “Give me the items, and you will gain power.”

It sounded like a promise from a god.  Pung decided to ignore his misgivings, since everything about this night felt dangerous.  He took a few choice fruits and gemstones out of the tote bag, stuffed them into his rags, then placed the bag on the hoverchair seat.  What a relief to get rid of it!  Anyone who caught sight of the data tablet or the wristband, even a slave, would have reported Pung for smuggling something highly illegal.

“Great.”  His owner sprang open his hoverchair compartment, rotating so that Pung could access the contents.  “Take the folded robes,” he said.

Uncertain, Pung picked up his owner’s three outer wear garments, each one inlaid with shiny geometric patterns.

“I’m going to the hover harbor near Leftovers Hall,” his owner said.  “I won’t be there for long.  Say hello to Cherise, Vy, and Lynn, and use those robes to pay the favor you owe them.”  He hesitated.  “You are free.”

With that incredible statement, the Yellow floated away.

Pung took a few steps, unsure where to go.  He might be an unowned slave, now, but that wasn’t the same as being free.  Only spirits and gods and heroes were free.

His owner was going to the harbor where all the hovercarts were stored.  Alone.  With stolen valuables and enough water and food to last several days in the desert.

Pung clicked his fingers together, sick with dangerous thoughts.  The clicking sound filled the empty street.  He ought to stop thinking and obey orders.  No matter how lucky he had been so far, he needed to remember that he was nothing more than a common ummin slave.

He wanted to beg Kessa for advice.

Well, he needed to visit the human slaves anyway, as per his owner’s command.  Pung tucked the Torth garment under his arm, and began to jog towards the Tunnels.  He needed to quit thinking about the humans and their old certainty of getting rescued.  Rescue was impossible.  Escape was impossible.  If he kept thinking wild thoughts, he would get himself killed.  His owner’s intentions were not his concern.

His owner was no longer his owner.

Pung mulled it over, certain that his ridiculous ideas would wither into dead ends.  Nothing was ever easy.  Slaves certainly did not free themselves.  They did not simply stroll out of the city, even if some of them could pass as Torth from a distance, even if they wore Torth robes, even if the city was relatively empty, even if a vehicle and a driver was waiting for them.

A lifetime of slavery fought against his sudden, freakish hope.  Surely someone would see them.  Even if this rescue worked for the humans, surely they would refuse to take an extra ummin or two.  Pung might try to hop aboard, but the Yellow would . . .

Not summon help.  If he was committing illegal acts against the Torth Empire, then he couldn’t count on other Torth to aid him.

And everyone knew that a Torth could only punish one slave at a time, since it required their full attention.  The humans owed Pung a favor as much as he owed them.  If he showed up alone, his owner could punish him.  If he showed up with friends . . . armed with friends, Pung would have more power than his owner could fend off.

It all clicked into place in Pung’s mind with stunning clarity.

He raced towards the Tunnels, veering wide around the few Torth and slaves in the streets.  His feet pounded like the machinery he’d been forced to work as a child in the relative freedom of a slave farm.  Everything depended on getting the humans to the hover harbor as fast as possible.