The boys on display are behind glass walls. They line the edges of the hall, standing inside of their transparent cages. The cages are so narrow that there’s only enough space for the boys to stand. They can’t move. They can barely breathe. They squint in the white light that shines down on top of their heads. The cages, blue and clear, were made so the slaves can’t see out of them – but I still feel nervous whenever I walk in front of them. I still feel their eyes following me as I pass them by.
The hall is filled with polite laughter. Wine glasses clink. Dresses made of ruffles and lace slide across the marbled floor, and the walls shine like porcelain. A group of women and one man stand together in front of a cage and whisper as they examine the boy inside. They eye him as though he’s a statue – a piece of art to be analyzed – and gesture and smile. The back of one boy’s cage opens and he’s pulled out, having been bought and sold. The sound of a piano spills into the hall.
My mother’s heels snap on the marbled floor. She clicks her tongue impatiently as we walk. “Do you know which one you want?”
I press my lips into my mouth to stop myself from answering. My mother already knows that I don’t want a slave. I’ve never much seen the point in having one. I don’t need a pet that accompanies me wherever I go, whenever I decide to leave the manor or every time I go to school. I don’t want a boy to carry my things or lift the ends of my dresses and bring me tea in the morning.
Most other girls on the satellite receive a male slave for their sixteenth birthday. Owning a slave is supposed to be a symbol of entering adulthood – a birthday present for society’s debutantes – but really, it’s only an opportunity to prove that a person such as me can afford to own another human being. While my mother says that she only wants me to follow tradition, I suspect she also doesn’t want anyone to think she can’t afford to buy me a slave.
I try not to look at the boys as my mother and I walk. The shadow of my reflection follows me in the glass walls.
“You need a slave that won’t be difficult to control,” she says without looking at me, eyeing the boys we pass by. “One that won’t be defiant.”
“I can handle defiance.”
She ignores me. “You can’t be timid with your new slave – once you finally decide to choose one.” I can see her eyes scanning each cage – probably trying to find the weakest, most complacent slave in the hall. “Don’t be afraid to beat him to keep him under control. There are far too many owners that let their slaves get away with anything.”
My mother stops walking when a hollow thud echoes through the hall. I pause beside her. There’s another thud against a cage wall, this time accompanied by the sound of skin squealing as it presses and drags against the glass.
A few women crane their heads curiously, while others frown and whisper to one another. Even the piano seems to falter. My mother stares at the cage in front of us. The boy inside has begun to slam his hands against the glass. Though he can’t see anyone standing in the hall, the corners of his lips twitch as though he’s fully aware he has everyone’s attention.
The boy slams his hands against the wall again. The glass shudders with each smack. I can feel its vibrations in the soles of my shoes. His heavy eyebrows cut over his eyes. His red skin is pulled tautly over his bones. The hollows of his cheeks are too narrow, as though he hasn’t had a decent meal in a long time. His collarbone juts out through the gray uniform. Even though he’s smiling, his eyes are thin and his teeth are clenched, making the muscle in his jaw jump and pop. I’ve never seen such resentment on a slave’s face before. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such resentment on anyone’s face before. I can’t help but smile. I know that my mother won’t want me to buy him, so this boy is immediately the only slave in the hall that I want to have.
I say, “I’d like this one, I think.” My voice is louder than I meant for it to be, and several women surrounding us look away from the boy to look at me. Heads twist and lean in to one another and whisper.
My mother stops. With her back turned to me, I feel a clench of uncertainty, but I straighten and raise my chin by the time she turns around to face me again. She squints like she can’t quite believe she’s heard me correctly. I meet her gaze to let her know that she has. This time, she doesn’t smile as though I’m trying to be funny. “Unacceptable.” She shakes her head. “Absolutely unacceptable.”
She begins to walk away once more, but I say, “You asked me to choose. This is the one I want.”
She spins back to me, her calm demeanor about to break. “This is the one you can’t have.”
“That’s my decision to make. Not yours.”
My mother’s black eyes won’t look away from mine. I know this tactic from training: don’t look away from the eyes of the prisoner during interrogations. It’s supposed to remind the prisoner that the officer is the one with the power. The prisoners that look away have been properly broken. force myself not to blink. I feel heat creep up my neck, and the palms of my hands become cold with sweat. It’s harder than I expect, to speak while looking her in the eye. “If you’re going to force me to take a slave, then it’ll be one that I choose. I’m not going to let you choose one for me.”
The echoing thud continues to rattle the hall. She doesn’t speak. Her eyebrows twitch as though she’s about to smile, but her lips are still pressed into a hard line. I know my mother would never want punish me in the hall of a slavehouse, in front of a crowd of watching strangers. To her, that’s something that should be done in private. If she breaks down and begins to scream at me, she’ll only be admitting that she’s lost control. I smile, and she continues to watch me, as though daring me to disobey her – to buy this slave without her permission. The piano’s music reaches a high note before it fades away again.
The thuds stop. The boy presses his hands against the glass so that the skin of his palms turns yellow and green. He does nothing else. He only stands there, hands straining against his box, as though he believes he can push the glass wall aside.
I tell my mother that I’ll be waiting for outside, and I turn away to place my bid.