He wasn’t expecting it. He should have been; after all, he’d been working on the Outer Ring for a year now, doing his time to earn this very right, to hear those very words.
And yet still, when they came, Valran was taken aback. He turned to stare at the thin, robed, woman. She was wearing high-circle silks and thin sandals; she didn’t belong out here on the Outer Circle wall.
“Kneel, Valran Trestor.”
This was happening, here, now. This was real, and not a dream born of thirst and exhaustion.
Valran fell to his knees before the woman could walk away. “I am Valran, born of Trestor.”
“You have petitioned for service to the Ladder.”
“I have, yes.” She was lovely, but there was such an ice about her loveliness, an artifice to the slightly off-blue color of her skin and the tips of her pointed ears. She did nothing at all for Valran. But that had always been one of his problems.
“And you have served at the Outer Wall for one year and survived.”
“Yes, ma’am. I have done so.”
He could hear some of the wall crew sniggering. There were easier ways to climb the Ladder. There were less humiliating ways to move in from the Outer Circle, and Valran – born of Trestor, in the Seventh Ring – had moved out to get here, for the privilege of bending his knee to this icy, artificial woman.
“Your petition has been approved. You are to be accepted into service and presented at the next auction, tomorrow morning.” She coughed, a move as fake as everything else about her. Perhaps the smell of unwashed bodies offended her. “Should you accept, you will be prepared in that time for the event.”
“I am kneeling, aren’t I?”
Behind Valran, the crew had gone from sniggering to outright laughter.
“While you’re on your knees, why don’t you show her what you’re offering? I bet you could give her a nice free sample.”
“Forget about showing her, why not show us? We’re the ones that gotta work out here all day.”
“Awww, I don’t think she likes us. Look at her holding up her hem as if the dirt might be contagious. Come on, lady. We’re the ones making your precious inner circles safer.”
“Your work is appreciated, as it always is.” She used the same bored, crisp tone with the crew as she had with Valran.
“Aaww, if you’re going to appreciate us, why not come over and really give us some tasty appreciation? Sit and conversate a little, warm a spot of ground, share our lunch?”
Valran looked between the woman and the crew, then back. “I am kneeling to serve, lady.” So take the way out before they get cruder.
“You understand that the service, once you take it, is for ten years or until death? You understand that there is no backing out?”
“Once I have knelt, I kneel to the Ladder until I am freed. Yes.” Three rings out, ten in. He could kneel for that long.
“Then as proxy to the Council of New Indapala, I accept your bent knee and your petition.” She snapped the cord holding his ID chit. “Hold still.”
What else was there to do? Without the ID chit, he could go nowhere but out; not even the ninth circle would let him past their gates. “Ma’am.”
“It’s ix, actually, not ma’am. I’m told it’s harder to tell with those of us in the innermost circles.” She – rhi – wrapped something around Valran’s neck.
“Rise, Valran Servus.”
The collar around his neck felt impossibly heavy. Valran stood, paying no heed at all to the jeers of the work crew. They no longer mattered at all to him.
“It will be interesting, to see who buys you.” The woman started walking, and Valran, having been given no other directive, followed her.
“You don’t look like the sort to take the collar. At least not this collar.” She didn’t bother to turn around, but Valran had to assume the inner-circler was speaking to him. There was nobody else visible, for one.
“Nobody looks like the type after a year on the Outer Ring, ix. They look like they are dirty, and tired, and hungry.”
“And muscular. You didn’t want to go the route of the Gladiator? You would draw good ticket sales, looking the way you do.”
“I didn’t look like this a year ago.” Valran stood up a bit straighter. “I looked like any pencil-pusher.”
“And you chose to work the Wall for a year, for the right to kneel for ten. That is some sort of devotion.” The words should have suggested surprise, or awe, or disgust, but they were flat, with no infliction at all. It was as if she had a script she didn’t really care about.
“I did what I needed to. I’m doing what I need to.” His reasons were his own. Other people on the Outer Circle had family, loved ones, a crazy business plan – some reasons they needed a leg up or a shortcut on the Ladder. Not Valran.
“Will it be enough to carry you through ten years?” Now the inner-circler turned to look at him. Blue-painted lips were pursed, and blue-lined eyes stared into him. “Will it be enough to keep you on your knees when everything inside of you is screaming at you to stand?”
“It will have to be. It is all I have.” He shrugged, unmoved by her stare.
“And, if in the end, you find yourself not in the circle you wanted? Will you go back and try again?”
A year on the Outer Circle – if he survived it, he could handle it, but the crew had a fifty percent fatality rate. Ten years of bended knee – possibly eleven, by then – that, he did not know.
“Will you come get me again, if I do?”
“I may. This is the rung of the Ladder I have settled on, after all.” A low bow accompanied the words, the sort that Valran thought was supposed to be ironic. “And there aren’t that many who do this job of mine.” The bow unfolded into a gesture, pointing towards the gate. “I’ve heard this is called ‘chutes and ladders’ in some circles, and I’ve played the ancient game. Will you step onto the chute, Valran Servus?”
There was a car waiting there at the end of the gesture. A car, long and sleek, paneled in tooled metal and driven by a short woman in a wide metal collar. Valran had only seen such things a handful of times in his life; they rarely left the inner circles.
“The chute.” He coughed, found his throat was still clogged, and coughed again. “Yes. I’ve knelt. I’ve taken the collar. Everything else is just a formality.”
“But such interesting formalities.” The inner-circler opened the door for him; peeking in, he could see that the back of the car was upholstered in silk like the robes his escort was wearing.
“I’ll get it dirty.”
“It’s warded against it. You’re not the first one we’ve picked up from the Outer Circle, of course.”
Valran coughed again. “Of course.” He slipped in, sitting gingerly on the soft fabric. “Why this? Why the car? It seems like a risk.”
“Of course it is.” His escort slipped in next to him and closed the door. The vehicle suddenly seemed much smaller with the three of them in there, trapped in with Valran’s work-stench. “But so is what you have done and what you are about to do. Forward, Bicla. Back home.”
“As you wish, ix.” The car started moving, slowly at first, with a series of jerky back-and-forths, and then more quickly.
“As I was saying, it is a risk. Anything we do is a risk. Ah, the first gate.”
Valran held his breath. This gate, he walked through every night; it led into the protected part of the city, the part that counted as New Indapala. It looked different, driving through it.
Everything looked different, through a window. The slums of the Tenth Circle looked dirtier, even, than in walking through them, the houses smaller. From here, you couldn’t see the ladders in the back courtyards, so everything looked very forbidding, even the Wall-worker common housing.
“It’s all so unfriendly.” The tone in his escort’s voice could have been an echo of Valran’s thoughts. “Just endless walls.”
He cleared his throat yet again. “The backs aren’t like that. There’s the gates between courtyards, and all the ladders, old mothers and fathers hanging out gossiping while they cook dinner. It’s just the street fronts.”
“Oh, I remember. But it’s been a lifetime.” The inner-circler graced Valran with a wry smile. “It wasn’t the Tenth Circle, then; it was the Eighth. And it was a bit deeper in, not the wall-worker houses, at least.”
“At least.” Valran’s mouth felt as if it was made of chalk and concrete. After a year on the Outer Circle, it probably was. “You…”
“Oh, come now. You know not all that many adults in the inner circles were born there. You cannot hold a whole name and never touch the outer rings.”
His escort was getting far too much amusement out of this. For that matter, so was the driver; Bicla, that was her name, right? Bicla was chuckling. At him. Valran’s ears were warm.
He settled on the only thing he was certain of. “I don’t know your name.”
“Oh, but you do. Unless you’re illiterate, of course, but you signed the papers with a name and not an X, and Seventh Circle hasn’t been the outer ring for quite some time.”
“You enjoy this, don’t you, ix?” Anger was a good thing. He could hold on to that.
“I enjoy everything about my position. But haven’t you guessed, yet?”
“I didn’t know I was required to. Ix.”
Bicla chuckled again, which didn’t help matters. And the inner circle… oh.
His fists clenched. “You.”
“There. I knew you’d get it.” The Second Circle Deputy Oligarch patted Valran’s leg. “I do enjoy my job.”