3.16 Torth Skin

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In the street, Kessa tried to watch every direction at once, certain that Red Ranks would have Cherise and Lynn dragged to prison. Slaves couldn't yell at Torth, or attack Torth, and expect to live.

Kessa froze in terror when several Torth drifted towards them. Distant, emotionless gazes revealed no hint of their intentions. Cherise didn't seem to care. She walked when Margo urged her to walk, but she had a dangerous, unpredictable expression. 

But the Torth merely stood and studied the humans. Kessa looked for commands. She had the crawly sensation that they were violating her mind, collecting her thoughts and memories.

They moved aside after a while, and Kessa hurried away. She could hardly believe that she'd escaped without a pain seizure.

And the humans! They must be protected by the gods. Either that, or they had never been in real danger. They hardly seemed aware of all the attention they kept attracting from Torth passersby.

Cherise's devastation reminded Kessa of the final days of her father, after a mining accident had destroyed his foot and left him unable to work. If Cherise's shocked sorrow was fake, then anything Kessa perceived might be false.

The humans moved like dreamers as they worked. The meal-time collar pinch was a relief, and Kessa hurried to Leftovers Hall.

"You believed he was human?" Kessa asked her friends, once they were safely amidst heaps of leftover food.

"He used to be." Margo's tone was heavy, remembering a foster brother that Kessa could not imagine.

"All mind readers are rotten to the core," Lynn said, her tone dark. "I thought he was sweet and innocent when I first met him." She fished a bone out of a pile of rotting food, and inspected it. Then, to Kessa's horror, she tucked it into her rags. The purpose was obvious. She wanted an illegal makeshift weapon. How many illegal activities did she think she could get away with?

"Pung might be dead," Kessa pointed out.

The humans stared as if they couldn't believe in such cruelty.

"You think Thomas would kill him?" Margo sounded sick. "For what?"

"He endangered his owner," Kessa said. "He brought dangerous slaves into his owner's presence. Most Torth would kill an ummin for that. I doubt Pung will be as lucky as you humans seem to be."

They had nothing to say to that. They looked ashamed, and heartbroken, and Kessa stopped questioning them.

After their wake cycle ended, Kessa sat with the humans in a corner of their bunk-room. She asked Cherise to lie down, and smoothed back the strands of hair that had escaped the rag around her head. The poor human had barely eaten anything. Kessa traced circles on Cherise's forehead; a practice that was said to draw out bad energy.

Slaves surrounded them, demanding to know what had happened. Had they seen Pung's owner? Was he a Torth? If they had bothered a Torth, why weren't they dead? Was he a great hero, and if so, why weren't they on their way to paradise?

Kessa tried to ignore them, so she didn't notice the commotion in the hallway until someone said, "Pung! You're alive?"

Pung trudged towards Kessa and the humans. All of his self-assurance was gone. He flopped on the floor next to Kessa, sullen, and flung one arm over his eyes, as if to block out all the curious slaves that kept asking him questions. "I should be dead."

"Are you all right?" Kessa asked him.

"I got one brief punishment." Pung grimaced. "I deserved worse, after doing such a stupid thing. I should have listened to you, Kessa."

"What do you mean?" Kessa felt it necessary to keep her attention on Lynn, who was sharpening the bone's point.

Pung studied the humans with fresh amazement. "They truly are another species." He shook his head in wonder. "Humans."

"You believe us?" Kessa tried to understand why Pung had changed his mind.

"They thought he was their friend," Pung said in a tone of wonder.

Kessa grinned with relief that she was not the only one who had been surprised. "Imagine if I ripped off my skin and revealed myself to be a Torth."

"I saw," Pung said. "I just don't understand how humans are so gullible. They must be worse than nussians." He looked as if he was trying to place a dangerous wager. "How could they be fooled? Anyone can tell the difference between them and my owner, and it has nothing to do with slave collars." He seemed oblivious to the fact that he had been unable to tell the difference. "Did he make jokes? Did he tell stories? Did he laugh and sing?"

It seemed impossible to imagine, yet the humans had described Thomas as helping orphan children. They'd considered the feeble Yellow Rank to be their brother, their best friend. "He must have been convincing," Kessa said slowly, tapping her beak in thought.

"He speaks a foreign tongue when he sleeps," Pung said. "I think it's their language."

Kessa had never heard of a Torth who showed signs of dreaming. She went back to tracing circles on Cherise's forehead, but she kept thinking about all the oddities. Pung's owner must have fooled every human on Earth. That was the only possible explanation. Torth were omniscient, after all, impossible to fool ... so it seemed.

"I wonder," she said.

"Wonder what?" Pung asked.

"I wonder if this Thomas is as Torth as he appears."

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