Chapter Five: Young and Stupid
The Slave Office, though not the same one he had been to when the Creghorns bought him, was almost exactly like Bensin remembered. This one had a fake potted plant in one corner, but there were the familiar hard chairs in the waiting room, the armed guard just inside the door, the professionally-dressed woman behind the counter busy at her computer. He wondered if she was the same woman who had locked Ellie’s first collar around her neck three days ago.
He sat down and waited while the two men filled out paperwork at the counter. “Would you like to upgrade his collar while you’re here?” the woman asked Mr. Mayvins.
“Are you kidding? I can barely afford this tag fee, let alone the actual purchase price. Why would I want to pay for a more expensive collar?”
“Well, the latest model comes with GPS tracking capabilities. Very useful when a slave tries to escape. Considering that our records show this one has made two escape attempts already, you might want to consider it.”
Mr. Mayvins set his pen down and turned to look from Bensin to Mr. Creghorn. “Two escape attempts? Neither of you bothered to mention that little detail!”
“Oh, it was a long time ago,” Bensin and Mr. Creghorn hastily replied in unison.
“I was a lot younger then, sir,” Bensin added. “Young and stupid.”
“He knows better now,” Mr. Creghorn agreed. “You wouldn’t ever try such a thing again, would you, boy?”
“No, sir, certainly not,” Bensin assured them both. “I’m old enough now to know that it would never work anyway.”
Mr. Mayvins frowned, obviously not convinced. “Exactly when did this happen?”
Neither of them replied, but the woman behind the counter peered at her computer screen and announced helpfully, “The first time was just over a year ago. The second time — oh, it looks like the second time was this week. Monday night.”
Once more Mr. Mayvins glared from one to the other of them. “Monday night.”
Neither of them answered. Bensin stared at the floor, wondering what would happen now. Would the man refuse to buy him?
“Young and stupid, huh? You mind if I talk to him alone for a moment?” The trainer didn’t wait for Mr. Creghorn to answer. “Come with me, Bensin.” He took hold of Bensin’s arm and led him through the door and out into the sunbaked parking lot, the dark asphalt painfully hot underfoot. Rounding the corner of the building, they stopped on the other side, out of sight from the window. Bensin stepped onto one of the painted lines indicating the edge of a parking spot, the white color making it cooler under his bare feet. He would have worn his shoes if he’d realized he was going to be standing around in a hot parking lot.
“You know, the one thing that matters more to me than anything else is honesty.” The trainer pinned Bensin with a stern gaze. “I can deal with the occasional talking back or sloppy job on your chores or whatever, but not being able to trust you is a deal breaker. I’m just getting over one gigantic betrayal in my life right now, and I’m not interested in living with someone else whose honesty is in question. So if you actually want me to buy you, you’re going to tell me here and now exactly what this running away business was all about, and you’re going to give me your word it won’t ever happen again and that you won’t ever lie to me.”
Bensin didn’t know any owners who would actually trust their slaves’ word. If I promise not to lie to him, will he really believe me? But it seemed Bensin had no choice.
“I haven’t signed the last of the papers yet, and this transaction isn’t going through unless I’m satisfied. Understand?”
Bensin licked his lips. “Yes, sir.” What could he say that this man would believe? I can’t tell him anything about Ellie. That was the one thing he knew for certain. His chances of helping his sister escape would be higher if this man didn’t know she existed. Much, much higher.
“Good. Then start.”
Drawing a deep breath, he began shakily, “I knew I couldn’t get away for real, sir; not with my collar and everything. But Mr. Creghorn had been mad at me and lashed me with the Motivator more than usual, like you saw, and it hurt so bad I couldn’t sleep or anything. So I sneaked out at night. I’ve got a friend who knows what to put on whip welts so they don’t hurt as much. I was going to go to his house and get him to give me some, and then be back home before anyone noticed. But a Watch officer caught me when I was out. Both times.”
He dared to glance up and saw that Mr. Mayvins’ gaze had softened. “I see.”
“I wouldn’t try to really run away, sir. I know better. Where could a slave go in Jarreon?” He fingered his collar. “You can’t escape when you wear a tag that tells all about you. And anyway, sir, I wouldn’t have any reason to even try since you said you wouldn’t lash me. I meant what I said before, sir. If you treat me the way you said you will, then I really will be the best slave you can imagine.” He looked up again into his hopefully soon-to-be owner’s face. “I promise you that, sir.” Bensin would keep his promise, too. Unless it conflicted with his promise to Mom, of course.
“And you won’t ever lie to me again?”
“No, sir, I won’t.”
“Good. Because if you give me reason not to trust you, like I said earlier, I’ll probably have to sell you.”
“I understand, sir.”
“And if you’re ever tempted to sneak out at night for painkillers, just tell me and I’ll give you some.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”
“All right. Let’s go back in and wrap this up.”
When the two men had finished with their paperwork, the woman gestured for Bensin to step around behind the counter. The guard stood over him, breathing down his neck, while the woman checked the serial number on the back of his tag and jotted it down on a notepad. She unlocked a cupboard where Bensin glimpsed hundreds of tiny keys hanging from rows of hooks. Checking their numbered labels against her note, she finally selected one and inserted it into one of the slots in his collar. Mr. Creghorn handed over a second key and she unlocked the second lock. She bent the two half-circles of the collar apart at the hinge that connected them, and off it came.
Bensin reached up and felt the bare skin at his neck. He wiggled his shoulders and head, feeling the unaccustomed lightness. For this moment, I’m just like a free person! If he were to walk outside now, no one would know the difference.
He could barely remember what it felt like not to wear a collar. He had gotten this one when he was a little younger than Ellie. The only time it had ever been off was when the Creghorns had bought him and his sister. He remembered standing behind the counter that day too, rubbing his bare neck, as the woman found a slightly larger collar for him and slid on his new tag.
Now he watched as this woman reached into the little machine on her desk and pulled out the steel tag that had just been imprinted with his new owner’s name and signature. She slid it over one end of the collar and brought it back to him.
Any dreams of escape he might have entertained had been rendered useless from the beginning by the presence of the burly guard not six inches away. But still, something inside Bensin seemed to crumble as the woman fitted the metal ring around his neck again and he felt the two ends click back together.
The guard stepped aside so Bensin could return to the waiting area as the woman handed Mr. Mayvins his receipt, copies of all the paperwork, and two little booklets. “Here’s a complimentary set of passes. When you run out, you can buy more here or at any other slave office, or simply create your own. And since you’re a first time slave owner, here’s a copy of Jarreon’s Slave Laws.”
The man flipped briefly through the law booklet. “Give me the quick version. Is there anything I really need to know to begin with?”
“You’re required to give your slave one day off a week, and since he’s under eighteen, he should be working no more than eleven hours a day. Beyond that, what you do with him is pretty much up to you. You’re free to discipline him in any way you see fit. If you choose to hire him out to work for others, the accepted rate is two-thirds what a free person would earn for equivalent labor. If you allow him to go out on his own, you’ll need to fill out and sign one of these passes, which he’s required to keep with him so he won’t be suspected of running away.”
“All right, got it. Thanks.” Mr. Mayvins turned to shake Mr. Creghorn’s hand. “Cley. Pleasure doing business with you.”
“You too; you too. Glad we could get this all worked out.”
Back in the pickup truck, Bensin found his heart pounding. I’ve really been sold. Steene Mayvins is my new owner. His life was about to change, probably much for the better — except that it would be strange living away from his little sister. He was apprehensive about his plans for her, too. As he worked on his idea, there would almost certainly be times when he would have to sneak out to make arrangements. And then of course there would be the night when they would put his plan into action.
Well, he would just have to find a better way to make sure they wouldn’t get caught. And in the meantime, he really would be the best slave this man could imagine.
I’ll work harder than I ever worked for the Creghorns, Bensin vowed silently. I’ll never complain; I’ll never talk back; I’ll find more tasks to help with than he even asks me to do; and I’ll be completely honest with him about everything except Ellie. That way, if he ever does catch me sneaking out, he’ll be more likely to give me one more chance before he sells me.
They passed the CSF, and Bensin paid close attention to their route so he would remember the way. Sure enough, it was only a few minutes later that Mr. Mayvins pulled into the parking lot of a sprawling apartment complex. “I just moved in a couple weeks ago,” he began almost apologetically as he turned off the engine. “I haven’t bought much furniture yet, and most of my stuff is still in boxes. I guess one of your first jobs can be to help me get the place organized.”
“Yes, sir,” Bensin agreed readily. “I’m pretty good at organizing.”
“Good, ’cause I’m not. My wife — I mean, my ex-wife — always took care of that sort of thing.”
Grabbing his box of possessions from the back of the truck, Bensin followed his new owner along a walkway and up a flight of stairs to the second floor. In spite of the man’s warning, he was startled to see the messiest home he had ever encountered. Boxes, bags, and suitcases were scattered around the living room, some still sealed shut, others open and spewing their contents. An open soda can stood atop a stack of pizza boxes on the carpet. The only furniture in here was a single armchair and a TV, both of which looked brand new. No chairs or table could be seen in the kitchen or dining room, only a counter piled high with empty paper bags and take-out boxes bearing the names of half a dozen fast-food restaurants.
“I know it’s pretty bad,” the man apologized. “But I don’t even own a trashcan, and until I buy more furniture, I don’t really have a place to put most of my things, so I couldn’t exactly unpack. And until I get my next paycheck, I can’t even think about buying furniture, especially after what I spent today.” He winced at the memory. “I hope you’re able to bring in enough from award money and hiring out to help me build my savings back up again, or I won’t be able to retire until I’m ninety. I mean, no pressure or anything.” He gestured down the hall. “I guess your room will be the one at the end there.”
Bensin glanced through the other two doorways as they passed. The bathroom was on the left and another bedroom to the right, its only furniture an unmade bed. More boxes covered the floor, some half empty, piles of rumpled clothes and odds and ends scattered around them.
“I’m afraid I don’t have a bed or dresser or anything for you yet,” his owner apologized. “I do have a sleeping bag you can use, though, if I can find it. I’ll get my stuff out of here before tonight.” He gestured to a couple of suitcases lying in the middle of the floor.
“Don’t worry, Mr. Mayvins. I’ve never used a dresser before anyway. In my room in the Creghorns’ house, I just kept my things in boxes.”
He stepped into the room and stared around, surprised to see that this was no slave room, but a regular bedroom! It was at least twice the size of the one he had shared with Ellie, and it had its own actual closet. Like most of the rest of the apartment, it was carpeted, and there was a large window in one wall that looked out at the walkway and parking lot beyond. Not only that, but it had a ceiling fan, and he could see air conditioning vents in the wall above the door. Window, carpet, fan, air conditioning — I’ll sleep well tonight, mattress or not.
He set his box down under the window. “Shall I help you start organizing now, sir? I could stack some of those boxes to make temporary cupboards and arrange your things inside.”
“Um, sure. I guess so.” Then Mr. Mayvins slapped a palm against his forehead. “Oh! Speaking of things. I just remembered I’m supposed to go back to my old place today to get some stuff. Serra — my ex — called this morning and said she’s getting rid of it all tomorrow. You’d better come with me to help load the truck. Let’s empty a few of those boxes to bring along.”
It was half an hour’s drive to Mr. Mayvins’ old place. Looking out the passenger-side window, Benson observed that the houses here were larger and fancier, the yards bigger, than any in the Creghorns’ neighborhood. They pulled into the driveway of the largest house on a quiet street. Mr. Mayvins took a deep breath, perhaps bracing himself for something difficult. He turned to Bensin as though to say something, but seemed to change his mind at the last moment.
The front door opened as they approached, and a tall Imperian woman in a red miniskirt and high heels appeared at the top of the steps. “About time you bothered to get here.”
“Yeah, nice to see you too, Serra. Where’s the stuff?”
“Mostly in the guest room.” Her sharp gaze fastened on Bensin. “Who’s this?”
“His name’s Bensin.”
“Not exactly.” Mr. Mayvins made as though to brush past her, but she stood blocking the doorway.
“You bought a slave? You can’t afford a slave!”
“I can and did.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. I know exactly how much money you had left in your accounts. How much did he cost?”
“That’s none of your business. My money is my own now.”
“You spent your retirement savings, didn’t you? You must have.” From her vantage point on the top step, she pointed an accusing finger in his face. “That is exactly why you’ve always driven me crazy! You go making these incredibly irresponsible spur-of-the-moment decisions without thinking things through, and then I have to live with them. Well, at least I don’t have to live with them anymore.”
“No, you don’t,” he agreed, annoyance in his voice. “Which is why I shouldn’t have to deal with your criticism. Now are you going to let us in, or not?”
She didn’t move. “What did you buy him for, anyway?”
“To work for me, of course. What else do people buy slaves for? And to compete in cavvara shil.”
“You, Mister Slavery-is-Unethical-and-a-Blight-on-Society? Amazing how fast your morals changed when they got inconvenient!”
“Who are you to be talking about morals?” he snapped. “Now will you please move out of the way?”
Finally she stepped aside and let them in. Carrying the folded boxes they had brought, Bensin trotted after Mr. Mayvins.
This Serra must be about to move out, he thought as he passed through the bare living room. There was no furniture in there, no pictures on the walls. But the house had a used look, not a new one like Mr. Mayvins’ apartment. As they turned down the hallway, he glanced into the rooms they passed and saw that they were all equally empty.
But not the one that must have been the guest room. A neatly made bed stood between a nightstand and a matching dresser. At the other end of the room stood a desk, a chair, and an empty bookcase. “I left the extra bedding and towels that Aron and I don’t need in the hall closet,” the woman announced, following them in. “And there’s stuff we don’t want in the kitchen cupboards too. Anything left after you leave, we’re throwing out.”
She hovered nearby, watching and criticizing, while Bensin helped Mr. Mayvins pull the covers off the bed. Bensin folded the bedding neatly and stowed it in the dresser drawers, and then the two of them carried the frame and mattress out to the driveway. They filled the other drawers with towels from the hall closet.
It took some creative arranging to make everything fit in the bed of the pickup. After they had finally maneuvered all the furniture in, they moved on to the kitchen.
“So your new apartment can get cleaned at last,” the woman scoffed as they filled a box with stained sponges, scrub-brushes, and half-empty bottles of cleaning supplies from under the sink. “Has Bensin here seen how bad it is yet?”
“My new apartment is perfectly fine,” the man shot back.
“How many roaches have you seen there so far, boy?” the woman demanded.
“None, ma’am,” he replied loyally, though considering the state of the place, he would not be surprised if some turned up.
“Bring over a couple more boxes,” ordered Mr. Mayvins tersely. “You can fill one of them with everything from in here.” Bensin obeyed as his owner began emptying a different cupboard of mismatched mugs, plastic plates, and other cheap utensils. This woman looked like the type who would use fine china and glassware. She had probably taken all the good dishes for herself.
“I’ll bet you haven’t cooked once since you moved,” Serra remarked. “And that might be a good thing.” She turned to Bensin. “I hope for your sake that you’ll be doing the cooking. Has he told you what kind of garbage he makes?”
“It’s not garbage,” growled Mr. Mayvins from the depths of another cupboard. “It’s healthy.”
She scoffed. “Well, call it what you like; I’m glad I’ll never have to experience it again.”
At last they had stripped the house of everything that might be useful. “So how much did you cost, anyway?” the woman inquired as Bensin headed for the door with the last box.
Behind her back, Mr. Mayvins turned and frowned at him, but he didn’t need the unspoken warning. “Sorry, ma’am, I didn’t see the paperwork.”
His owner didn’t speak as they squeezed the boxes into the truck, but the strength with which he slammed his car door spoke volumes. They sped most of the way back in silence, a good twenty miles per hour above the speed limit. Whenever Bensin dared to cast sidelong glances at his owner, he could see his jaw clenched in anger.
“I appreciate you not telling her anything about the money or the state of my apartment,” Mr. Mayvins said finally. Bensin, not sure what to say, just nodded. He had once heard his friend Ricky tell another slave, “Don’t ever make any comments, good or bad, about a free person’s ex. You never know whether they’re going to get defensive and take it out on you.”
Back at the apartment, the two of them set up the bed in Bensin’s room, the dresser and nightstand in Mr. Mayvins’, and the bookshelf in the living room. “I guess we can use the desk as our table,” Mr. Mayvins decided, and they positioned it in the little dining room just off of the kitchen along with the one chair.
They spent the rest of the day unpacking and putting things away. Bensin gathered up all the accumulated trash, taking it down by the armload to the garbage cans he had seen in a corner of the parking lot, and arranged the few mismatched dishes in the kitchen cupboards. As boxes were emptied, he tucked the flaps neatly inside each and set them on their sides, arranging them in rows against the walls of the living room and Mr. Mayvins’ bedroom. In went clothes, shoes, books, movies, documents, sports equipment, and various other odds and ends.
In one large carton, Bensin discovered a number of separate newspaper-wrapped items. Upon unwrapping the first one, he was startled to discover a polished silver cup with two large handles. On one side he read the words,
YOUNG WARRIORS OF JARREON TOURNAMENT
BOYS UNDER 16 DIVISION
FEBRUARY 14, 138
He competed in cavvara shil too?
Bensin unwrapped the next object, which turned out to be a framed certificate. A chain of embossed cavvarachs formed a gleaming border around the words,
Honorable Mention: Steene Mayvins
Imperial Cavvara shil Society Annual Skills Display
Boys Under 18 Division
November 25, 139
The next item was a gleaming trophy shaped like a pedestal. Atop stood a little figure of a person brandishing a cavvarach. The engraved plaque at the bottom read,
CITY OF KRILLONIA SUMMER ATHLETICS EXHIBITION
CAVVARA SHIL, BOYS UNDER 16 DIVISION
JULY 18, 138
But it was the fourth one that really made Bensin’s jaw drop. A large, bronze cup on a tiered stand bore a plaque that said,
GRAND IMPERIAL CAVVARA SHIL TOURNEY
BOYS UNDER 18 DIVISION
April 9, 141
He fought in the Grand Imperial? And he actually placed? Bensin could hardly believe it. His new coach was more talented than he had imagined.
He jumped when Mr. Mayvins, who he had thought was in the other room, appeared and knelt on the carpet beside him. “I see you found my trophy collection.” He took the cup and brushed a film of dust off the top of its stand with one finger.
“Yes, sir.” Bensin glanced back into the box, still mostly full of bulky, newspaper-wrapped objects. “You must have won a lot, sir.”
“Not as much as I wanted to.” The trainer grinned. “Now I enjoy my victories vicariously through my students instead. And this year, that’s mainly going to be you. Just wait. You’re a good athlete already, but if I have any say in it, you’re going to become a champion athlete.” He pointed to the bookcase they had set by the far wall. “Go ahead and arrange these on the shelves there, but make sure you keep at least one shelf empty for your trophies. It’s going to be full by the end of the year.” He held up the Grand Imperial cup. “You’re going to have one of these, too — and it may just be better than bronze.”