This story © Keenan Cross 2023
When the team of moths have levered the globular body back into its tub, and the room has been steamed to a thick fog, my owner gives me a dour look, and I send everyone away, myself included. I pay the moths—each receives a green guarant chit, a handsome sum for the work—and order the main chamber sealed until the vennsh commands it opened.
I cannot say for certain what has has Rouan Hai so sullen. The debate was not a rout. Whatever unwise things were said and heard, Rouan Hai was not humiliated. The physical effort, the travel, the expense, the way it had to be bodily handled, all could leave it thoroughly spent. I tell myself this repeatedly over the next days, when murky water leaks from below the doors to the main chamber and dampens my hooves.
With the vennsh not supervising its complex, it should be my responsibility, but I am not. Instead, I am nearly as withdrawn as my owner. I remain in my quarters most of each day, leaving only to issue a few instructions to the staff and inquire after Rouan Hai’s health and behavior. I work furiously, but not very fruitfully, at recreating the Goldenhill memoir. I use a great deal of the stock of paper and ink. I receive angry glares in the tunnels, because I am in no mood to pay the paid staff.
Nights, I dream or Mursat taking hold of one of the pincers on my chest, pulling with thumb and fingers until it rips from its socket. There is no pain in the dream, but the familiar wrenching, the loosening and then give of the soft flesh, and its absence after, it is clear enough that I wake in fear of the pain that should accompany it. I have had this dream before, but never so frequently. In my youth I dreamed of the fullkind children who had done so in my first home, and in Goldenhill any number of faces could have loomed over me, even my Windbloom’s. But since Mursat it has always been Mursat. Except when it is Minark, who does it so smilingly.
It is three Has Asel Weeks, a third of a Period, before Rouan Hai finally calls for me. I attend, expecting reprimand I do not, but should, fear.
The main chamber, having been almost hermetically closed aside from a small vent and an exit for birdlings, is hot, steamy, and fetid. It seems a much bigger space, its walls obscured by thick, dark clouds. I feel almost I am outdoors, in a hard-floored marsh, a crepuscular scene lit only by a point of light just above the vennsh’s belly.
That light shows a drawn, miserable face, more grounded than I am used to seeing on my owner. It’s large eyes with their off-round pupils focus on me, and not into the dreamy abstract world of thoughts into which they normally look. I am silent. So is it, for a long while.
“I have ill managed your affairs,” it says finally. Its voice is heavy in the fog. “But it is set aright. I have arranged with the Hall of Property that you are to be escorted out to the Great Common Plains in the case that I am killed or ousted from the University.”
I lower my head, the start of a nod that I do not finish. Heretofore I have had no such safeguard—surprised as I am, I am tempted to try and reassure it that no such disaster is forthcoming. But the unease with which Rouan Hai speaks gives me pause, and I do not make a liar of myself. Far above me I can see the edge of a mat laid across the frog’s towering belly, a simple writing desk balanced atop that. With the birdlings swarming about, I can only assume that Rouan Hai has been engaged in constant correspondence, laboriously, with its own clumsy and shriveling hands. It is really and truly afraid.
“Thank you,” I say. I should grovel and protest any kindness afforded me by my owner, but I am fortunate that the vennsh requires no such show in private. I am fortunate in many ways. Though I have not been released.
“Vaso Mursat,” Rouan Hai mumbles suddenly, while I am distracted by the promise.
I am now at attention. I have not discussed Mursat with my owner [make sure this is true earlier in the story]. I should not expect it to be unaware of anything, though. It can know what its birdlings hear, after all, and they can be quite subtle.
“I have found him,” the vennsh shifts as much as it can without disturbing its belly-mounted desk, so that it must eye me sidelong. “I do not know why you are desperate to. I do not read your writings. I will tell you at such time that you leave my service.”
In my shock I almost protest at the delay, but I stop myself. Though the fog does not affect my vision I remove my spectacles to dry them. Birdlings investigate me while I am blind, surprised by my unusual face, and I wave them away before they can try to probe the open sides of my nose.
“Thank you,” I manage again. “Mursat was—”
“Quiet,” the vennsh’s rumbling nearly topples its desk. “I have no need of talk of distant marshals who hide with strange books. Leave me, I must speak with everyone today.”
I stammer something that sounds polite, and duck away without replacing my spectacles. My inward vision is a dizzy haze of Mursat, of the memoir, of hands pulling at my pincers.
Back out in the corridors the air is cooler and cleaner, and I stand quietly alone for a long time, glasses in hand. I clutch the stone lenses tightly, let their narrow edges dig into the joints of my fingers. Rouan Hai holds, and withholds, the answer I have sought. If it is so afraid that it will be chastised, why must it cling to me, torment me?
I can think of many excuses for it. I am always excusing my owner. And it has given me the promise, if not the reality, of freedom. I must not curse it. I need not be satisfied, I need not feel that I have received only kindness, but I must not curse it.
The rest of the staff hates to see my unbespectacled face. I do not know who passes me, but I make sure that they see it, while I powerlessly seethe.
The ptericeryne harbor chief is busy with his books when I arrive to receive the next installment of Rouan Hai’s order from him. He carefully scratches tally marks into a ledger with a pen held between the toes of a forehoof, an arduous task from which he has no time to look away and acknowledge me. I speak with his attendants, who lead me and my contingent of laborers—fellow slaves—to the warehouse from which we will bring our lumber, paper, and mortar back to the sewer.
I delivered one half of the payment following the original negotiation, and I carry with me a gilt money box containing the rest, which I will hand over when our carts are loaded. The warehouse workers, fullkind of many species—many not often seen in Has Asel, such as the western glass-pig Marulei, and numerous long-armed Hafoi—watch us with displeasure. Beams and sheets of wood, waxed barrels of heavy mortar. The laborers shift them perfunctorily from high stacks onto our carts, while the harbor chief’s assistant and I both mark our records.
I would not bring a demihuman staff if we were receiving spices or foreign fruits. It may have been more than glowers we received if so.
The Hafoi, at least, do not care. They fold and unfold their arms, half again as long as they are tall, to heft our goods, pleasant but blank smiles on their crescent faces. They are almost animal: they scarcely comprehend speech and seem only to follow instruction without thought or else loll idly. Those I knew in Goldenhill and in the Plains were cogent and communicative, but all in Has Asel are like this. I do not like to see it, but I must keep tally.
It is when one of the Hafoi looks up that I am alerted that something is wrong. The mottled-cream-skinned alien’s eyes cross my face for a fraction of a second before looking past me, with a glint of recognition that vanishes quickly. I turn to see the swarm of gendarmes boiling through the warehouse’s entrance.
There is no question that they are here for me, and for my fellows. The leather-clad soldiers hold their hands out to silence us as soon as we have seen them, approach us with their pikes conspicuously at the ready.
As if we would resist. As if any of us were anything but tired.
The lieutenant among them places his free hand on the back of my neck. His hand recoils at the rubbery texture of my skin, but he girds himself and proceeds. He is not large, but much larger than I am, and I am immobilized.
“You are all the property of the Lord Professor Advocate Rouan Hai,” he says. Behind his leather helmet his eyes are disinterested.
I confirm it.
“Let it be known that the Lord Professor Advocate has been found guilty of undermining the integrity of the University,” the lieutenant announces. “Suppressive of Has Asel’s righteous knowledge, and is suspected of espionage on behalf of Esor. Your master is to be stripped of its titles and exiled.”
A flush of seating-hot panic passes over me, like a deadly fever caught, suffered, and broken within a second. I have heard this speech in my mind a hundred times, braced for it in a dozen encounters and until now have walked away relieved. I keep my spectacles aimed at the floor between him and me.
“The Lord Professor Advocate—my master—” I stammer. “has arranged for me to be escorted to the Plains if it is exiled.”
My heart pounds—my freedom is within grasp, and perhaps my soon-former owner will point me to Mursat…
I watch only the ground before my own hooves. I do not know if Rouan Hai extended similar protection to all of its slaves.
“It is unfortunate that the Lord Professor Advocate can order no such thing,” the lieutenant says. When I jerk my head up I see that a glint has come to his eyes. “Because you are no longer its property.”
He releases my neck, and draws a knife from his belt, with which he cuts my armband from my arm. At his signal, the others tug and cut the markers from all the others I have brought with me.
“Per the orders of exile,” the lieutenant explains. “The stripping of its property is listed before its title.”
I can only stare. The gendarmes wait for an attack, but none of us make a move. It is sport for them, but we are boring. Rough hands begin to shove, pull away belts and gloves and other such niceties. The lieutenant takes the money box from me. Inspects its contents, stacks of colorful chits of more than modest value, along with a handful of standard lapis coins. It goes into a canvas sack another gendarme brings forward.
“Unclaimed demihumans on the floor,” the lieutenant announces when our valuables have been confiscated.
My hands go to my spectacles, though he has made no move for them. Between my fingers I see his platoon turning to go. There is only silence when they have gone.
Elsewhere, every one of us might have been claimed right away. Here, where the labor was all paid, the fullkind only watched. One slave runs for the exit, another falls to her knees. I am frozen, until I am not and my cursed legs are carrying me for the door. The others are doing the same, and I have to push past them to get out. I should help them: I am too panicked.
We leave Rouan Hai’s purchase scattered on the warehouse floor. The lumber no longer belongs to the Lord Professor Advicate. I can hear the gendarmes continue to announce us as they recede. Not everyone in the Maritime will only look at us with disdain; there will be plenty who leap at the chance to claim our free labor. And there is almost the whole width of the city between us and the gates, let alone the hundred miles of open road to escape Esor Asel.
We can do nothing for each other. We can do nothing for ourselves. We will all be caught, every one of us.
I escape the crush with little enough injury. There is no healer waiting this time. I can only lope on the uneven cobbles, careful not to trip and tear open my sides or my head. I am already worn out.
The lieutenant waits for me, when I round a corner in the narrow streets surrounding the warehouse. He locks my head in one arm, in no quick motion but I cannot escape.
“You thought you would escape with them?” he asks. It is no effort at all for him to fold me over and wrench my spectacles away from me.
When he has them, I scream.
He could have taken them first. He had to let me think they would be left to me. I sag to the ground, but he is gone even before I reach it.
I have found my way to this street, in the Lay but near its border with the University, here where several undesirable demihumans gather. You find me here often, I know it is you. You give me plain unglazed guarant chits, though I cannot use them, and scraps of meat, though I cannot eat them. It is a kindness, which I suspect you afford to the others here as well.
You have not spoken to me. I am beginning to suspect you may be a moth, by your footfalls, which I recognize by now. I know that sometimes you stand and even kneel before me where I sit. And I talk to you and you do not talk back. Maybe I fascinate you. I know my hair has grown shaggy, I know there are sores on my face.
I am not afraid to tell you—as I have told you many times, I am aware of it but I will continue, because I need for you to know—that my last master’s exile was a thing of politics and not law. Rouan Hai never betrayed Has Asel, never worked with Esor in any unsanctioned way. That is the charge that the gendarmes and the University give when someone is odious to the king. I suspect Rouan Hai has been borne away by now—it has been so long since the exile was announced, but I do not know how long. It is probably baking in the open sun, while a team of moths carry it, in exchange for the last of its seized fortune, to find a new home. Maybe it is dead. If the University ever speaks of it again, if Lord Professor Minark does not put it out of his mind, they will mark its death according to at least two dates. And they will not think of me.
I hope that maybe you are a scout, looking for unclaimed demihumans to bring to your employer. The sun and the open air, I cannot be in them. Even the salt wind burns me. If you would re-enslave me I beg that you do so before the end of the wet season.
But even if you do not, one of the days that you come and look at me and maybe look at the others, I will tell you something. I will tell you about the growth beneath the city of Goldenhill, and of its long life. I do not remember it all, not the order of events, nor every event to begin with. But whether or not you bring me in, I want you to hear it. If I am to waste on these streets, it will not only be my old partner, so far away, who knows what is in his book. Even if you never speak to me, I will be glad to know that you heard.