4.7 To Rob a God

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The garden boulevards were devoid of traffic. Pung realized that the desert ceremony must have forced everyone to get onto roughly the same sleep schedule, so his owner was able to speed unimpeded. Pung had to run in order to keep up with the hoverchair.

Not everyone slept, of course. A Kemkorcan slave rippled in the distance, swimming on feathery limbs. A chubby govki raced past, top heavy as it waddled on two of its six limbs. Here and there, distant Torth sat in lounges or strolled together, but Pung's owner kept managing to avoid them, picking the least traveled alleys.

The sleeping city gave Pung a bold feeling, like he was winning a game against the toughest gang boss in the Tunnels. He was doing something illegal while most Torth slumbered, unaware.

Soon they arrived in the garden atrium entrance to the palace. It always smelled sweet, with flowers blooming in bunches. Water flowed through channels between sandstone floor tiles. Golden chandeliers lit the foliage, with petals like flowers. Some gardens felt intimate, but this one seemed open to the city air, so vast that the farthest vine-wreathed pillars were hazed by distance.

Normally, the nussian guards would escort a guest to the fat Torth who resided here. But the eight guards who approached sized up Pung's owner with their beady eyes, and their spikes bristled in a threatening way. They must have orders to not let him pass.

"Guards." His owner spoke in an arrogant tone. "Line up here." He pointed nearby.

The nussians bristled even more. They would only obey their owner or a higher rank, and Pung kept his head down, wishing he dared to hide. The guards would surely alert their owner about this.

"Tomorrow, I will no longer be a Yellow Rank." His owner lifted his chin in an imperious manner. "And I won't have time to deal with the likes of you. Those who refuse to comply will be thrown in prison."

A few of the guards glanced at each other. They must have seen this Yellow Rank during the ceremony in the desert, and he'd had a place of honor, seated among Torth chieftains with white eyes. In fact, he seemed to have led the ceremony. And his voice was unusual, not raspy and stuttering, the way most Torth sounded when they spoke out loud. He was as fluent as a chieftain.

The guards shuffled nervously. Their owner had always treated this particular Yellow as a high rank, almost as her equal. And she herself had risen rapidly from Yellow to Blue. His claim might be plausible.

"Line up!" the Yellow commanded with all the attitude of a Red Rank. "Now!"

The guards tromped into a row with frantic haste, forming a wall of armored chests. Ignoring a high rank would be fatal.

The Yellow had to lean back in order to look up at the nussians, but he floated along, inspecting each guard in turn. Despite the iridescent yellow color of his eyes, his gaze had the cold intensity of a high rank. The guards squirmed.

After a moment, the Yellow seemed to reach a conclusion. He swung his stare into Pung, who couldn't help but flinch. That stare was almost a physical force.

"In the swamp zone," his owner said, "there's a ventilation shaft. One of these guards will guide you to it. Explore that shaft and collect any contraband supplies that you find." His fingers moved subtly, his hoverchair rotated so that only Pung saw his hand signals. Fetch three items. Be discreet.

For a fleeting instant, his owner looked vulnerable, like one of the humans. But maybe Pung had imagined it. His owner was imperious again, pointing at two of the guards. "You. You. Resume your duties." He pointed to a sleek female guard. "You, guide my slave to the specified shaft."

She bowed to acknowledge the command, and loped on all fours towards the inner palace. Pung ran to keep up. He had been worried about what slaves would think of him entering with an empty tote bag and leaving with the bag full, but now he had a perfect excuse. They would assume it was proof that a guard had illegally hidden contraband.

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