2.11 Torth With Names

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Kessa sat up to study the three Torth wearing slave collars. The whole city had come to a standstill when these odd Torth showed up, and now they were in her bunk-room.

"I was ordered to bring these three here," the hall guard proclaimed in his gravelly voice. He filled the doorway with his thorny bulk. "Many high-ranked Torth told me that they are slaves."

No one else dared to speak. Not in the presence of Torth.

But slaves needed to be able to talk or sing or nuzzle each other every once in a while, which was surely why the Tunnels existed. If slaves were forced to be obedient even here, in their own bunk-rooms, then the city would devolve into chaos. It seemed monstrously unfair.

Kessa decided to risk speaking. "Have you seen them get treated like slaves, Weptolyso?"

"Yes." The hall guard, Weptolyso, displayed his fine array of teeth in a grin. "They did not fight back."

The three Torth stared as if they hadn't understood a word anyone said. They looked terrified, like slaves, but that had to be a sham. Their eyes were not yellow, which meant they were middling or upper ranks.

"How long are they supposed to be treated like slaves?" Kessa asked.

"I was not told," Weptolyso said.

Murmurs broke out. Everyone agreed that Weptolyso was a fine example of his species, but the folks of Nuss—nussians—were gullible and rash. He had probably misinterpreted the situation. This must be some twisted experiment, a way for Torth to find out how stupid slaves were.

"Peace, peace!" Weptolyso boomed above the ruckus. "They are behaving like slaves. I heard them speak to each other in some unknown language."

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 airy and pleading.

Many slaves, when they arrived fresh off a slave farm, had a particular language. Kessa could still remember the swishy dialect of her childhood, although she had not heard it spoken in countless lunar cycles. But no matter where a slave grew up, and no matter what strange accents they arrived with, all slaves learned the common slave tongue as well as their local language. Surely a Torth would know it as well. Torth knew everything that slaves knew, plus more.

"This is foulness!" Hajir, the only nerctan slave in the bunk-room, jumped off his bunk with a heavy thud. Other slaves jumped back. Slaves from Mer Nerct commanded some respect, since a nerctan could hurt smaller people by swinging their triple-jointed necks.

"They're baiting us," Hajir said. "They must have practiced for a long time, to imitate slaves with such sincerity."

Violence was brewing. Even the dreamers, high up in the shadows, sensed a change. They gazed at the collared Torth with a flicker of interest, as if passing from one nightmare into another.

"We are not mindless fools!" Hajir cocked his enormous bony head at the trio. "We have to act mindless when we obey, but down here, this is our city." He made a sharp gesture with the bone spike on his head.

Even in the dim light, Kessa saw how terrified the three Torth looked. She sat up on her bunk, letting her legs dangle to the floor. Her first-level bunk was a privilege, because spirits, or luck, supposedly protected the few slaves who survived to old age. No one wanted to offend the spirits, so for the most part, slaves respected elders such as Kessa.

"Let's take their clothes," Hajir was saying. "We'll see if they fight like slaves or Torth." He turned to Weptolyso. "Are you going to protect them?"

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