Jola crouched behind the pile of trash, clutching a fig. She’d grabbed it off the ground when it tumbled out of a woman’s shopping basket. She stuffed half into her mouth and gobbled it down. If the big ones in the gang saw, they’d take it for sure.
She peeked out from her hiding place, pushing her black hair out of her eyes. They’d know she’d eaten something, and hit her. But her belly had been so empty it cramped. She closed her eyes to savor the sweetness, and the juice running down her throat.
Behind her, a rat screeched as someone dumped a chamber pot into the alley. She dodged in time to miss the splash.
Zarl whirled around. He ran over and smacked her with the back of his hand. "What ya been eating?" She backed against the wall and crouched. He kicked her, and then left. Life was simple-you helped the gang or you starved. Even when you helped, the older kids took what they wanted. When the take was good, they grabbed only part of Jola’s share. When the take was sparse, they took everything, and beat her too. Zarl hadn’t seen that she had more, so she stuck the rest in her mouth. It was the only way to stay alive.
Zarl swaggered too much. She thought he wouldn’t last long.
It happened while she hid in an alley. A guard saw him snatch a loaf of bread from a stand, and dragged him away.
By the cold season, only she and one boy, Sama, remained of the eight kids in the gang. Two had died of fever, other gangs had beaten two to death, and Zarl and another had been caught stealing and never seen again.
Five new kids joined during the following year, forming a tight clique that included Sama. They ignored Jola, except on days they needed her as a decoy or lookout. They hardly ever gave her any of the food. She knew she should leave, but where would she go?
Wandering the city alone with no one to hit her was nice. No one paid much attention when she ducked around corners, going farther and farther from the little alley the gang called home.
She found a walled part of town and crawled through a drain to get in. Inside, beautiful open areas spread between big houses. Trees, shrubs, and flowers dotted the grassy stretches, and birds twittered in the branches overhead. She spent hours hiding among the lush shrubbery, breathing the fragrance of the flowers, enjoying the peace of the shrubs and trees, and luxuriating in the soft clean feel of the grasses and mosses. Concealed, she watched the people come and go. Some cut the grass and worked on the houses. Others just walked around. One lady came out to throw crumbs to the birds. Jola sighed at the waste.
They fascinated her with their beautiful clothes. Sometimes they even threw away perfectly good food, and if she was careful, she could snatch a little of it. Each night, her feet dragged as she returned to the alley. But it was her home, and the gang, even when they were mean, was her only protection.
"Where ya been, Jola?" Ned said.
"Wandering the alleys." She hugged her arms around herself. Ned liked to hit.
"Find anything good?"
"Since ya didn’t share with us, we won’t share with ya." Ned bit into an apple and juice dripped down his chin. The others munched on a variety of vegetables and fruits. Today the gang had done well, and Ned grinned when her stomach rumbled. She shrugged. She wasn’t about to let them know it stung when they were mean. That would make them taunt her even more.
Two days later, the gang ambushed her when she returned. She hit, bit and clawed. Ned twisted her arms behind her back while the others beat her. When she was huddled on the ground, he pulled two copper bits out of the little bag at her waist. Then he kicked her in the side. "What you mean holding out on us?" He kicked her ribs again.
The others joined with feet, fists and sticks. Curled into a ball on the ground, she bit back a whimper. A blow to her head brought wave after wave of darkness.
She woke up in the alley with her shabby dress nothing but a torn rag. Why had she come back? She whimpered as she crawled toward trash piled in a corner. She had to hide. Finally, she wedged herself out of sight and drifted into a pain-filled sleep.
Night had fallen when she woke again. She managed to crawl, shivering, into the corner, out of the wind. The next morning, she staggered up. Her belly cramped. When had she eaten last? She leaned against a wall. If she didn’t eat soon she’d die. Tears ran down her face. She wiped them angrily away. Somehow, she’d find some way to stay alive. She was too weak to steal from anyone who wasn’t lying dead in the street. The smell of roasting meats, fresh baked bread, and simmering fruit pies pulled her out of the alley toward the market stalls. Her mouth watered as she approached the brocade of smells. She wobbled as she walked and had to keep a hand on the wall for support. There must be something she could grab. Something! She spotted a little stall with a canvas canopy next to the wall. Glistening there in stacks were berries, green vegetables, and one beautiful yellow melon. She could taste that melon. She could feel the juice running down her chin as she sank her teeth into its ripe, rich flesh. She had to have it.
When the vendor turned his back to hand a woman some berries, Jola hobbled up, grabbed it, and ran. But her legs didn’t work right. They wobbled. Her knees buckled. No! She had to get up. She crawled onto her knees, arms around her prize, protecting it. A second later, a kick to her sore ribs sent her sprawling into a vendor’s cart. She gasped and pain shot through her body.
She moaned as the guard dragged her away, like Zarl and the others. Kids told terrifying tales of life as a bond slave, but she didn’t know what to believe. She would soon know-the next day, she was sold into bondage.
Her bond owner, Freeman Owenin, had her carried in a cart to his fish processing plant. The foreman dragged her into a room with seven other bonded servants, all older than she was. One girl fourteen summers old claimed she had been in bondage for five years. Short and skinny, the girl was only a little bigger than she was. Jola trembled. She would be here for ten years. Right now, she was the smallest and weakest. She curled into a corner and tried to doze. If she was going to survive, she’d have to get her strength back.
The next morning, the foreman rousted her out of the rags of her sleeping mat and prodded them all into the processing plant’s main room. She worked sixteen hours chopping off fish heads, tails, and fins, scraping off scales, and gutting fish. Whenever the foreman wasn’t looking, she crammed the guts into her mouth. They tasted only a little worse than the lunch of a fish cake and a piece of stale bread that was her only real meal.
She marked the days on the wall with the handle of a broken spoon. Since they were all the same, she wondered why she bothered-days of stinking food, insect-infested sleeping mats, eight bonded servants packed in a locked, windowless room, and countless beatings. The foreman said that bonded servants deserved their beatings for not working hard enough, for eating fish guts to stay alive and for sometimes being too sick to work a full day. She watched the way his eyes gleamed when he beat them to make them beg.
At night, Jola huddled in her corner, listening as the foreman came to get one of the other girls to go to his room. She wrapped her arms around her body, glad she looked so much like a boy. He paid her no mind.
One night, one of the bond servants came scooting across the floor and groped at her. He pinched her breast and clamped his mouth down on hers. He stopped when she bit him. He yelled and ran his tongue over his bleeding lip. After that, the others left her alone.
Three years into her slavery, a morning came that at first mirrored every other morning. She and the others were rousted out of bed hours before sunrise and went shivering into the unheated warehouse to clean the past night’s catch. Freeman Wilkins, the morning-shift boss, staggered in with wine stains down his tunic. One of the men didn’t move fast enough to get out of his way. Wilkins slashed at him with his whip.
Jola just kept gutting the fish with her eyes down. He stomped across the room. Her eyes flew wide in surprise when he grabbed her from behind, squeezing against her while he ground his whisker-rough face into her neck.
She spun, her curved fish-gutting knife in her hand. She slashed his arm open from shoulder to elbow. Blood splashed. He cursed as he backhanded her, and then grabbed at his arm. She would pay dearly. As he stumbled away from her, screaming and dripping blood, she was sorry she had missed his throat.
She stood there, knife in hand, glaring. The other bond slaves backed away and pressed against the wall. Then, no one moved. She eyed the doors and sighed. The heavy padlock held them closed. There was no way out.
Before long, someone opened the door for two city guards. They stared at her from across the room until three more guards arrived. The five of them encircled her, clubs drawn.
Her heart pounded. Her ears vibrated with the sound.
"Put down the knife now, and you won’t get hurt," a broad-shouldered man said. His lips twisted in a sneer and she knew he was lying. She gripped her knife harder in her sweat-slick hand and raised it a little.
"You’re in big trouble, gutter scum. If we have to take that knife away, you’re going to owe each of us." Another guard laughed and made a rude gesture. Jola pressed her back to the gutting table, and one guard made a grab for her arm. She spun, slashing his shirt. Two others rushed her from the side. She kicked, swung her fist and knife, and bit. They grabbed both her arms and twisted. The knife clattered to the floor and they bound her hands together behind her back. Her head bounced off the floor when one of the guards threw her down. She sucked in a breath. She wouldn’t beg. Never.
"That’s enough," one of them said when another guard drew back a foot to kick her in the head. "The judicator don’t like ’em to come in too beat up. We’ll get our turn later."
"You’re going to the iron mine for this, gutter scum. But we’ll get you first. You’ll pay," the guard said, nursing the arm Jola had bitten.
"Your name is Jola?" Judicator Kassandra said as she stared down from a raised platform. She sat in an intricately carved chair beside a small, matching table. She wore a red robe and carried a dagger at her waist. A gold-scaled mask covered most of her face, except for her pale, rose-colored lips and sharp chin. Silver-white hair cascaded over her shoulders, and a long, slender golden-scaled viper coiled around her neck. Its head rested on her shoulder, facing Jola with its flicking-black tongue.
"Yes, Mistress," Jola said. She was tired. The penalty for a bonded servant who attempted to kill a freeman was years working in Pyxus’s iron mines. Of those condemned to the mines, she had never heard of one returning to tell what went on there.
She tried not to care, but that was hard to pretend. Otherwise, why had she fought for every scrap of food, for better shelter, and for warm covering, insufficient as they were? She had survived by fighting, not by pleading. She wouldn’t beg or plead now, even to avoid the mines. They’d taken everything else, but at least she wouldn’t give them that satisfaction.
"Did you attack Freeman Wilkins with a fish-gutting knife?" the judicator said. Her golden viper raised its head from her shoulder as if interested in Jola’s answer.
"She tried to kill me!" Wilkins’s face twisted in rage and spittle flew from his mouth. He shook his fist in Jola’s direction.
"One-silver fine, Freeman Wilkins." Judicator Kassandra looked in his direction. "For interrupting me and disrupting the proceeding."
"I’m just telling you what she did, Mistress. She... " Wilkins stopped when Kassandra raised her hand.
"Another one-silver fine. You’ll speak only when spoken to. Now, Jola, did you attack Freeman Wilkins with a fish-gutting knife?"
"Yes, Mistress." She might as well tell the truth. They’d do whatever they wanted with street kids, and with bonded servants like her. She expected nothing different from the judicator.
"Why? I’m a bonded servant. I’m like a worthless, dumb animal barely worth feeding. Fine, but I’m not his. He grabbed me and touched me like he does all the other girls. I’m not for sale!" Jola stopped and blinked, surprised to hear all her thoughts and anger tumble out. Then she smiled. It wouldn’t change anything, but it made her feel better to shout it to the world.
Judicator Kassandra turned her head and looked Wilkins up and down. "Did you do that, Freeman Wilkins?"
"No. That’s a lie." Wilkins’s voice was choked with rage. Jola’s mouth dropped open. It took a desperate or foolish man to lie to a judicator. Even she knew they could sense truth and lies.
"A two-silver fine, Freeman Wilkins, for lying to me. Would you like to try for five silvers?" Kassandra said, with a small smile dancing at the corners of her lips. Wilkins opened his mouth and then closed it. He shook his head.
"Do you force girls to your bed?"
"No, Mistress," Wilkins said, glaring at Jola.
Kassandra turned her gaze toward Jola and nodded for her to speak.
"He’s telling the truth. He gives them extra food, makes me take extra shifts for them. He makes their lives easier." Jola shrugged. It could have been worse. He could have forced her into his bed.
"Jola, what did you do to be bonded for ten years?" Kassandra said.
Standing there in her torn rags, Jola squirmed under her gaze. She rubbed at a bruise on her arm. The judicator’s clean, calm face made her feel even dirtier. She must seem filthy, she thought, to the woman judging her. But it wasn’t her fault. She made herself stand up straight and look into the judicator’s eyes.
"I was caught stealing a melon, Mistress." She would just once like someone to admit that what had happened wasn’t right, even if it did her no good.
"Freeman Wilkins, who owns Jola’s bond?" Kassandra said.
"The plant owner, Merchant Owenin."
Kassandra sent the city guard after Owenin and waited until he arrived. Jola rubbed her arms and listened to her belly grumbling.
The plant owner, a tall thin man, scowled as the guards escorted him in.
"Merchant Owenin, how did you get Jola’s bond?"
"She was caught stealing. Administrator Bellogan sentenced her to ten years’ bondage. I bought the bond."
Again, Kassandra waited while the guards found Bellogan and brought him before her.
"What did Jola do to be sold into bondage for ten years?" Kassandra said.
"She was caught stealing."
"What did she steal?"
"I don’t remember," Bellogan said.
"Ten silvers for lying, Administrator Bellogan."
Jola stared at him, her eyes widening. He had paled and sweat beaded on his forehead.
"Why did you sell the bond to Merchant Owenin?"
"He’s my... married to my daughter." Bellogan dropped his eyes.
"Thank you, Administrator Bellogan, for not dragging this out." Kassandra rose from her chair.
"Let it be known to all citizens of Pyxus that Judicator Kassandra has resolved, beyond any man’s right to question, the issue before her involving Freeman Wilkins and the bonded servant Jola," Kassandra chanted in a low rich voice. "I decree the following:
"First, Jola is freed from her fraudulent bondage.
"Second, Merchant Owenin shall pay the sum of twenty silvers to Jola for the work she performed for him. He is sentenced to ten strokes of the cane and one year’s confinement.
"Third, Administrator Bellogan is removed from his position and is sentenced to ten strokes of the cane and one year’s confinement.
"Fourth, Freeman Wilkins will pay the king the four-silvers’ fine imposed by me.
"Finally, Jola, for her attack on Freeman Wilkins, will serve a two-year bondage to the Sisters of Astraea.
"So say the Judicators of Pyxus."