3.1 Banquet of Deception

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Kessa picked at the heaping plate of food in front of her. When Chaniyelem insisted on inviting the messiah to a feast in his honor, and Alex said "yes," Kessa was given no choice. She was ushered through a lamplit grotto with fountains, into a chamber where awestruck albino people offered to sponge-bathe her, and then they thrust a clean, fresh outfit upon her.

In the brightly lit banquet hall, they gave her a seat next to Alex, within the penumbra of everyone's attention. Margo was tucked into a bed to await more healing, Cherise was too quiet, and Weptolyso hardly knew the human tongue. That left Kessa as the only person who could satisfy everyone with her translation skills.

Alex seemed unaware of how exalted he was. Like Weptolyso, he was devouring a fourth or fifth helping of delicious foods, possibly as a way to avoid all the curiosity and awe aimed his way.

Alex and Weptolyso were a lot more interested in the banquet food than Kessa was. She'd eaten her fill, but she'd already forgotten the savory tastes and aromas. Everything about this palace was alien and otherworldly and peculiar. She couldn't stop staring.

Especially at the ummin dinner guest seated across the table from her.

High Councilor Deschuba was unlike any ummin Kessa had ever seen. Gold plates weighted his hat, cascading down over the shoulders of his richly embroidered tunic. He was portly, unlike any slave, and Kessa estimated that he was old. Maybe even as old as herself. His skin had the same creased, worn quality as her own.

Those facts alone would have absorbed her attention. But the most peculiar thing was how the albino people treated him. With deference. A servile young woman replaced his goblet with a fresh one, and she seemed honored to do so.

Other councilors sat at the table, all richly dressed albino people, and they conferred with Deschuba as if he was their equal. He spoke with them, and vice versa, as if there was no gulf whatsoever between their species.

"High Councilor Deschuba?" Kessa had to interrupt his conversation with a couple of Alashani councilors, but interruption seemed the only way to get his attention. He'd been honored with a seat near Alex, yet he seemed reluctant to speak with Kessa or any of the refugees. Perhaps he found their scrappy hats offensive.

"May I ask, Councilor Deschuba," Kessa cut in, "how did you escape slavery?"

Deschuba gave her an analytical stare. His gaze lingered on the scar around her scrawny neck. "I was never a slave. I have resided in Hufti all my life."

Kessa was stunned. Born free? It seemed impossible.

Pung leaned over from his seat at an adjacent table, half-chewed food visible in his beak as he gawked. "Is that common?" he asked. "Are slaves born free, in this city?"

Deschuba fiddled with his goblet, looking pained. "I told you. We aren't slaves," he said, as if speaking to a child. "I am sorry that you were a slave, but my people are not. I'm Alashani."

The albino people continued to eat or chat, not contradicting him. None of them stated the obvious fact that he was unlike them.

"But..." Kessa took a deep breath and decided to risk it. "Aren't you an ummin?"

"Of course." Deschuba gave her a look of pitying amusement. "Your eyes do not deceive you. I'm an ummin Alashani."

Kessa began to redefine that word in her mind.

"I thought the chalky-white people are Alashani?" Pung said.

"Yes." Deschuba said. "We are all Alashani. I am ummin Alashani, and they are shani Alashani." He gestured to nearby albino councilors.

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