“We’ve got to be stopping sometime soon right?” the rental to my right said.
I attempted a shrug before giving up and muttering something incomprehensible. My arms were dead. I looked from the pile we had cleared from the river and back to where several rocks still blocked part of the river. All I could do was shake my head.
The rental continued, “Surely they have to get us back soon? Not only is it almost sunset but-”
He went quiet as a controller walked into our vicinity. The controller wore a cruel look, I guessed he was definitely one that would leave you out here if you misbehaved.
I bent down and feigned picking up a rock until he passed by. I was utterly gassed.
“We’re going to miss the coronation if we go much longer,” the chatty rental said. I glanced to him, noting the frown on his face.
“How do you have the energy to talk?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Complaining gets me through the day.” He reached up to his face and scratched the lower half of his face which was covered with pock-marks.
I turned toward the back of controller walking away, looking for any sign that he would call an end to the day. Pockmarks was right in that we’d have to get back to the city soon if they didn’t want me changing into a bird at sunset. And I was one of the more friendly forms. The retreating controller glanced to another several feet away and they made a hand signal. I sighed. Finally.
“Yes!” the pockmarked man whispered loudly. The nearest controller turned and narrowed his eyes. Every rentals eyes met their shoes.
“Let’s go,” the controller said before turning and walking toward Ikalga.
I didn’t know which was louder, the sound of rocks dropping where the rentals stood or the sighs of relief. Relief didn’t last long as a controller stomped to a particularly unlucky rental and drew his sword.
“I don’t like it when you don’t finish your job,” the controller snarled. I turned and headed after the first controller, wanting to avoid getting caught in this.
“But,” the rental said, “everyone dropped their rock!”
“I can’t leave everyone out here now can I? What would the Trading Union say? I can’t destroy the merchandise. But who will miss one?”
The sword whistled as it cut through the air, punctuated by a yell through clenched teeth. I picked up my pace, not sparing a glance back.
The rest of the rentals fell into a crude formation, packing into a herd at the middle of the controller circular perimeter. No one spoke for a while, I doubt anyone even looked back at the unlucky rental. Whether that guard used a venom or a tranquilizer, that rental wasn’t getting home tonight, maybe not ever.
“Poor guy,” Pockmarks said as he matched my pace.
I rolled my eyes but didn’t respond. I doubted the controller would leave two rentals out of the city limits but I wasn’t about to test them. Rationality wasn’t under their job description.
I kept my eyes forward as we marched back toward the city of Ikalga. It was visible even from the job site, the wooden walls surrounding the first city of Elodine. Only the castle was tall enough to be seen over the wall though.
My legs were desperate to sit down by the time we had reached the southern gate. We walked in and continued toward the looming castle. Again, we needed no directions as this time our destination, the castle, was visible from all areas within the city. I ignored Pockmarks chatter as we made our way through the rich district, I always was nervous here. It wasn’t the lack of vermin or obvious signs of wealth that did it either. Unwittingly, I broke my silence.
“Coming through here makes me nervous.”
The marked rental looked at me with wide eyes, seemingly surprised I spoke. “Yeah, for sure.”
I was shocked he limited himself to three words. I thought too soon, though.
“I heard someone got caught here without supervision and they were flayed,” he continued.
“Yikes,” I said. Any rental or impoverished individual that showed up in the rich district never ended up in a good situation, so I was inclined to believe the flaying rumor. I cursed the Trading Union for wanting to maximize our time out in the field, therefore leaving the fastest way back to the dorms before we changed at sunset to be through the rich district.
“What I’d give to be in our own district,” the marked man muttered to himself. I nodded. I’d even take being in the market district. One would get odd looks but at least your life wasn’t in danger…usually. “Do you think rock dropper will make it back?” Pockmarks turned to me.
Again, I attempted to shrug. “No idea. No one usually makes it back through the forest.” Unfortunately, once he woke up he wouldn’t be able to take the shortcut back through the rich district, he’d have to travel around to one of the more northern gates, and that was through the forests. Bad things happened in those woods. A rental would be lucky to run into a wild animal there, the police would be… I shivered, despite the warm, dry air. Yeah, I’ll stick to working in the plains. Fortunately, that was unlikely to change as rain had become harder to come by so the Trading Union had us clearing rivers to allow the river to pour over to the rich district.
Finally, I could see almost the entire castle as we approached the ceremony to appoint our next king.
“Do you think we’ll see this one anymore than we saw Rayon?”
I looked to Pockmarks. “I don’t know, I work in the same fields you do.”
“Fair enough.” He went quiet.
I turned back to watched the castle grow as we neared. It always left me awestruck no matter how many times I saw it. Made of wood, much like every other hut here, it stood two or three stories, whereas every other building in Ikalga was only one floor. The only huts that rivaled the castle in floor space were the huts along the edges of the city, where the larger animals stayed by night. I looked around at the huts I passed, they were adorned in a few colorful rags, the rich folk trying to show off being able to afford fabric that was more than the tan of the rentals. Some were even able to keep plants.
My stomach rumbled, cutting my admiration short. I had almost forgotten we had to skip lunch. Damn, this shift of controllers. As evidenced by the abandonment of the rock dropping rental, these ones weren’t fair. They got away with feeding us twice a day. And my lack of energy quite obvious as only the forward momentum of my walking kept me going. If I stopped, I was sure I’d either fall over or be unable to get walking again.
“Halt!” A controller shouted. It was the slicer, his eyes scanned the crowd of rentals, probably hoping to find someone to punish. Fortunately, we had stopped. The slicer gave instructions on filing into the coronation area and soon enough we were walking again. I swear I heard my legs creak as I got them going again.
Relief washed over me as the King finished his coronation speech. Continuing to stand, knees aching, arms dead weight and back fixed in the upright position, I was thrilled at the prospect of being able to leave soon. My eyes roamed away from the stage with the gigantic wooden castle in the backdrop. I glanced to my neighbor, Holder.
“A full day of labor moving rocks and they still expect us to remain upright through this?” I whispered.
Holder responded with a slow head shake. He barely looked conscious. I opened my mouth to check on him when, to my great disappointment, a short, lightly tanned man with a bushy mustache stood and the coronation continued its lumbering march onward with no end in sight.
The energy that had filled me due to the possibility of leaving left me. My eyes drooped as I scanned the crowd and quietly groaned. The controllers were in tight formation around the crowd, per usual. One caught my eyes and silently sneered. Snapping my head back forward, I thanked my lucky overalls that the controller hadn’t smiled. The smiling ones were rumored to take their uniforms from dead rental workers… allegedly. I maintained hope that they received extra from the warehouse.
Still staring forward, I mumbled to Holder, “Hey, Holder.” No response. “You alright, man?”
“Huh?” I finally received a response. “Yeah, sure.”
Without the controllers’ presence I doubted Holder would have found the mental fortitude to still be standing. Those poison infused sabers were no joke.
With the ceremony still dragging on, I was careful to avoid any more eye contact with controllers. Unfortunately, they didn’t wear a standard uniform so it was easy to miss them on occasion. Some wore a midnight black in an effort to look mysterious and foreboding, while others went with the simple light brown outfit of the general populace. With the controllers disdain for uniformity, the sabers were sometimes the only way to tell a controller from a citizen.
I closed my eyes for a brief moment and bent down slightly, arms hanging, to stretch my back. I felt it crack and slightly loosen. My mouth let out another involuntary groan through my clenched teeth. I straightened and glanced around to make sure I hadn’t drawn any attention to myself.
The short man droned on about the dawn of a new day. I tuned it out. For the most part, his words didn’t affect me as a slave. They never did. Things never changed. Again, I wonder why they forced rentals here. A false show of solidarity? I just wanted to rest.
I turned my head, willing it to move despite two neck kinks.
“Yes?” I asked. It was Molder. I didn’t usually like talking to chatty Molder, but I was desperate at this point.
“Some ceremony, huh?” He spoke a little too loudly for my taste.
“Yeah, lovely. Just trying not to crumple.”
“Heh, don’t want to be penned for the night?”
Of course I didn’t. A night in the pen meant changing into your night form and at sunset and not unfolding your squished wings/legs/tails until morning. I clenched my fists while thinking of the rich changing in their comfortable custom made beds. Everyone changes at night yet we’re the rentals. I sighed and gave Molder a terse, “Nope,” before turning my face forward.
“Where’s Rayon? You’d think he’d be at the passing of the crown, you know?” Molder asked.
“I don’t know,” I said, still facing forward. “I’m at the same coronation you are.”
I was wrong. Even now, I hadn’t reached the level of desperation necessary to talk to him.
The speech was interrupted when there was a minor thump. I glanced out my periphery and saw poor Tea had collapsed. My heart mourned for her, that would be at least a night in the pen. I shook my head and snapped my eyes open in an attempt to avoid her fate.
“We will be bringing this coronation to a close now,” the mustached man said, with a quick cadence. “Rentals, please follow the controllers through the exit in the rear. Citizens, please-”
Finally, it was over. I almost cried tears of joy. My cot was calling my name.
“F62! Let’s go!” But first, it seemed a controller was calling it.
I willed my aching joints to move faster, joining the crowd of fellow rentals, hurrying away from the bright, extravagant decorations of the coronation and back toward the living quarters. I looked into the sky and noticed the sun was farther along in setting than I anticipated. That was why they were in such a rush. They’d have changing villagers on their hands in a few minutes if they didn’t get us inside.
I heard a brief yell and curse come from behind me. I turned and peered through the crowd. The sea of rentals pushed me forward, preventing me from seeing where the disturbance came from. But I didn’t have time to dwell on that as the individual in front of me also cried out, suddenly distraught. “Oh for Mariah’s sake!” The man fell to the ground, beginning to change. Well, looks like I was wrong. They’d have changing villagers now.
I attempted to push past the throng of people clogging half the path, simply watching the individual on the ground begin to sprout thick gray legs.
“Guys, you might want to move!” I hollered as I tried to get in the direction of my dorm. The controllers were nasty people. When there were accidental changings, there was nothing that rivaled their cruelty. Most of these people must have never seen that or they’d be clawing through the crowd right along with me. I heard a woman from behind me yip but I didn’t bother looking back. She was changing or she had been a victim of crowd control, either way, I didn’t want to be there to experience it. I finally cleared the crowd and began hobbling toward my cot. I ran straight as a board with my back threatening to tighten up and/or spasm.
As I increased the distance between the commotion and myself, my right calf cramped. I hopped to a stop and felt a knot begin to form. Gritting my teeth, I felt tears begin to roll down my cheeks. Only fear kept me moving forward as I slowed to a walk. Others in better shape passed me by. I finally spared a glance back and saw the group of bystanders being herded quickly in my direction. The controllers gave a quick slash to any that lagged behind, dropping them under the power of the tranquilizer immediately.
I attempted to once more pick up my pace, but the knot of muscle in my leg prevented me from keeping in front. The crowd gained on me. I hope forcing us to the coronation was worth it, I thought as I moved to the side of the road, hoping to avoid being trampled.
I reached the side of the path, awaiting the controllers and the herded group of rentals to reach me. I sighed, hoping I would only be penned for the night.
My thoughts were interrupted as a small lady in the front of the pack frantically called for help. She was having trouble keeping in front. The lady stumbled and locked eyes with me. She and the pack were a dozen feet out. Unfortunately, it looked like she had caught the attention of a controller as well.
Without thinking, I pushed off the post that was supporting my weight and trotted to beat the controller to the woman. If he tranquilized her now, she’d certainly be feet meat. The tears began again as I alternated between running one step and hopping the next on my bum leg. It was going to be close. I yelled as I got closer and the controller turned to face me, briefly pausing his walk toward the woman. He furrowed his brow and brought up the side of his mouth in a scowl before continuing to the small female. The controller’s pause allowed me to intersect his path. I half-dove, half-fell at the controller in an attempt to bring him down. I felt a sharp pain on my shoulder and I was unconscious as soon as I hit the ground.