3.11 Masterful Deception

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"Come. We will speak more of this when we wake." Kessa urged the humans towards their bunk-room, because Pung and a few other slaves loitered nearby. Pung could probably advise them about which cramped ventilation shafts would be a route into the prison, since he used those shafts as a smuggler. But he didn't trust the humans. Asking him would just lead to more insults.

Pung kicked a bone scrap across their path. "Perhaps Torth enslaved our ancestors," he said, glaring at Cherise. "But they must have murdered the spirits, too, so no one can stop them. That's what Torth do. They take everything." He gave Kessa a hurt look. "They steal our friends."

His implication was clear. He believed that greedy Torth had stolen away his friendship with Kessa. He must think of her as a blindly trusting, foolish, evil, traitor to everything that was good.

Pung saw that she was shaking with rage. "I wasn't going to tell you," he said, speaking fast. "I see how much you trust your new friends over your old one. But since you're already insulted, hear me, Kessa. According to your 'friends,' my owner's name is Thomas."

The name was unmistakable. It knocked the breath out of her, because Pung had to be mistaken. Torth did not have names. A human could not be a Torth.

"That's right." Pung laughed bitterly. "If you believe everything your new friends say, then my yellow-eyed owner has a name ... and I'm sure they want me to disregard the fact that he acts like a Torth, and looks like one, and owns slaves, and speaks only commands, and glides about in a hoverchair, and holds silent conversations, and in every way is a Torth." His smugness vanished, replaced by a hurt that Kessa found painful to see. "You've known me for twenty blinks of Morja, Kessa. Yet you chose to trust these three, whom you've known for less than one blink, despite how they look. I am trying to find humor in the irony."

"You're mistaken," Cherise said. "Your owner isn't Thomas."

But Pung believed it, judging by his scorn. If he was correct, then he had every right to suspect the humans, because it would prove that they'd lied about their supposedly sweet, innocent, child friend. Nobody could fool Torth.

"He fits the description," Pung said. "A midget ... pardon, a child," he said sarcastically, "who has wasted limbs, and cannot walk. He is no larger than me. He chose his slaves right after the humans arrived." He glared at them. "Tell me that is just a coincidence."

"He wouldn't," Margo said in a hoarse whisper.

Cherise studied Pung with a piercing gaze, as if trying to probe his mind. "It's probably a Torth that looks like him."

Kessa understood how unlikely that was. Miniature Torth were rare, and their range of physical variation made each one easy to recognize. "You said he has yellow eyes?" she asked Pung. "Their friend Thomas has purple eyes." But even as she said it, she knew she was searching for excuses.

"Eyes are a changeable detail on a Torth," Pung pointed out.

"What you're saying is impossible." Margo sagged. "Thomas is too ... too ..."

"Talkative," supplied Cherise.

"He talks all the time," Margo said.

"He would never join them," Cherise said. "They stole his medicine."

"Of course they deny it." Pung faced Kessa. "Come with me to work during a break, and see for yourself. You saw him on the day they arrived. You will recognize him."

Kessa looked from her new friends to her old. The humans were naive and flawed, but they weren't so moronic as to embrace an aloof, godlike Torth as their best friend and foster brother. And if a Yellow Rank Torth could deceive anyone and pretend to be a trustworthy friend . . . if Torth were capable of that level of masterful deception ... that meant her friends could be Torth.

Pung had to be wrong. It was the only answer she could tolerate.

Unfortunately, she needed to confirm it.

"I will come to work with you," she told Pung.

"This is ridiculous!" Lynn cried. "Alex needs our help. That has to be our top priority. Don't you understand that, Kessa?"

Kessa hated her own sudden doubts about her friends. "We can go during our next meal-time," she said. "It is far more feasible than aiding a prisoner."

Lynn moaned, and Margo looked far more dismayed than she should, but Pung looked grateful. "Thank you. You are a true friend."

Cherise pulled a folded item out of her rags, like a flattened facsimile of a beast. She smoothed its folds. "It isn't him. And if he ..." Cherise's voice was ragged. "If it is him, then he's doing it to rescue us."

"I don't think so," Margo whispered. "It's been a long time."

Pung assessed the humans, brow ridges lowered in a frown. "I'll admit, the tale of the giant in the arena makes me wonder about you." He hesitated, then jabbed his finger at them. "Maybe I am wrong about you. If I am mistaken, and my owner is not your missing friend, then I will owe you an apology and a favor. Is that acceptable? I will help you smuggle an item in or out of the prison."

He must feel certain that he was right, because no one sane took risks by smuggling things into or out of the prison. Margo and Lynn exchanged glances, as if caught between hope and doubt.

"Is that a promise?" Cherise asked coldly.

Pung tapped his collar in agreement. "Yes. If Kessa does not recognize my owner, then I promise to help you. But I warn you, I am right."

"This is really not a good idea," Margo said, looking from Cherise to Pung.

"I'll be happy to watch while you pretend not to recognize him," Pung said. "Now, will you object if we make it a fair bargain? If I am right, then you owe me a favor. Whatever I want, as long as it doesn't guarantee anyone's death." He appraised the humans with disdain. "Not that I expect your kind to keep promises."

Margo and Lynn looked anxious to object, but Cherise said, "Agreed."

"Good." Pung's collar was beginning to glow, signaling the start of a work shift. "Now I must go." He hurried away calling to Kessa, "You know the morph fountain plaza in your owner's neighborhood? Follow the garden path to the bonnet flowers, and take three zigzags. It's the seventh door panel on the ivy-covered wall. There's a small holographic decoration, like a geodesic object." He ran. "Fare well!"

Even a lenient owner would have limits of patience.

Kessa's own suspicions pained her. She tried to stop wondering why her friends looked so apprehensive.

"Thomas would never abandon us." Cherise sounded as if she was trying to convince herself.

It was an odd choice of words, as if she believed that Thomas might have transformed from a human to a Torth. Cherise should understand how impossible that was. Torth knew everything. They would not be fooled by one of the sweet humans struggling to pretend to be one of them, no matter how smooth he acted.

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