3.3 The Code of Gwat

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Alex wasn't someone she would bring home and introduce to her own mother, if they ever got home to Earth. She couldn't take him on a dinner date, or skiing, or out to a movie. She didn't want size to matter, but it did. He'd have trouble fitting inside cars and through doorways, and he would draw gawking rudeness in any town or city on Earth.

And what about intimacy? She blushed, thinking of the sorts of jokes her friends were likely to make.

She must be desperate, to consider getting steamy with someone who was four times her size and potentially violent. Alex had a sweet side, but he wasn't suitable for her. He was too unpredictable. Too naive. Too self-conscious.

And too genetically close to being a Torth. 

Too close in size to an ogre.

Margo sneaked another glance at him, and all the power he was wielding. Pebbles jerked towards him, bullet-fast, then stopped in midair. 

Alex opened his eyes and caught Margo watching. His face reddened, and the pebbles fell in a layered cascade. A few bounced off the floor, and the rest seemed caught by an invisible force.

Margo turned away to hide her own guilty blush. He had better not get distracted like that when it really mattered.

"He doesn't see that you have eyes for him," Kessa said.

Margo gave up trying to knot a rope, and met Kessa's gaze. Sure enough, the ummin looked perceptive, and slightly amused.

Cherise had the same knowing look.

Margo put down her rope, exasperated. "He's the only male human on this planet, okay? I miss humanity." She tried to concentrate on packing. "I like him as a friend. That's all."

"Mmm hmm." Cherise sounded noncommittal as she measured cloth for another supply pack.

"He will listen when you speak," Kessa said with certainty. "Make sure we don't leave him behind in Duin." She unwrapped a packet of wafers, to make it fit better, apparently certain that Margo had power over Alex.

Margo chuckled at the absurdity. "Alex listens to everyone. He's nice to everyone."

"Yes," Kessa said. "He understands the Code of Gwat better than anyone I have ever known."

Margo had heard of the slave philosophy, but she barely understood it. She wondered if it was a religion, or something else. "You follow Gwat. Right?"

"I do my best." Kessa seemed embarrassed.

"It means being honorable, right?" Margo asked. "And truthful? And sincere?"

"It is a way to use knowledge," Kessa said. "For Torth, it is very easy. They don't need the Code of Gwat. For slaves, it is difficult."

Cherise glanced up, listening.

"What do you mean?" Margo asked. "In what way do you use knowledge?"

Kessa clicked her beak in thought. "I cannot read minds, so I should refrain from judging you, or others. The only person I have a right to judge is myself." She looked frustrated. "This is difficult to translate."

"It's about being nonjudgmental?" Margo asked.

Kessa shook her head, as if Margo had misunderstood. "Every decision I make should be based on what knowledge I have. No more, and no less. This is easy for Torth—" she looked at Thomas with envy—"who have all the knowledge. It is a struggle for slaves, who have so little."

"But isn't that how everyone makes decisions?" Margo asked. "We can't decide things unless we know what we're deciding."

Kessa tucked supplies together. "I fell from Gwat when you three humans first arrived in my bunk-room." She looked ashamed. "I judged you to be three Torth, and I treated you as Torth, until it became obvious that I was wrong."

"But ..." Margo stared at her. "You can't feel guilty about that, Kessa!"

Her ummin friend still looked ashamed.

"It's natural to make wrong judgments sometimes," Margo said. After all, she had misjudged Kessa when they'd first met, worried that the alien would lead her into a trap. "We all make mistakes," she said. "We're only human." She reconsidered her wording. "Or ummin."

"Yes." Kessa's face crinkled with warmth. "No one can follow the Code of Gwat all the time, except for mind readers. But we can try. It brings us closer to the gods."

"And you think Alex is doing it?"

Kessa clicked her beak in agreement. "He only judges himself. To him, children have the same worth as adults. Ummins have the same worth as nussians. He is not greater than anyone else in this cave."

It's because of his years alone, Margo thought. Alex had skipped high school and college. He had never gotten immersed in social media, never gone to a shopping mall with friends, never joined a club. Of course he wouldn't presume to judge anyone but himself.

That made her wonder if Gwat was such a good thing.

"Do you forgive the Torth, for what they've done to you?" Cherise asked in a hard tone.

"No." Kessa met her gaze. "I know what they did to me. There is no mistake, and I would be very glad to see them punished."

Cherise nodded, as if satisfied.

Margo made a mental note to keep an eye on Cherise. She supposed she ought to watch Thomas, too, and make sure that no one stabbed him or strangled him.

At least no one wanted to murder Alex. He followed Gwat so well, he might as well be the ummin equivalent of a saint.

If she remembered correctly, saints had a tendency to die young, in violent ways.

She put more travel packs together, but found herself glancing at Alex from time to time. Gwat might be a fine philosophy, but it didn't include self-preservation. Someone had to make sure that Alex took his own needs into account. Someone had to make sure he was ruthless when he needed to be, instead of showing his default kindness and naïveté at the wrong time.

*** A/N: I'm speeding this up! New posts every 5th day. I should be able to keep up this pace until the end of the book. ***

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