The boys on display stand behind glass walls. Their private chambers are so narrow that they might as well be inside of glass coffins. They can barely move. There’s just enough space for them to breathe. They twist their heads and squint in the white light that fills their cells. I was told that the glass can only be seen through the viewer’s side, so the boys won’t be able to look at me even when I’m standing right in front of them. I’m grateful for this. Even so, there are still moments when one of the boys stares blankly before him, and I feel as though his eyes follow me as I pass him by.
The hall is filled with polite laughter. Wine glasses clink and sweet perfume drifts through the air. It’s cold enough here that bumps prickle my skin, though that’s really not the sort of thing I can complain about. The cold lingers on my eyelashes and my cheeks. Dresses made of ruffles and lace slide across the marbled floor. A group of women and one man stand together in front of a cell 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 case opens and he’s pulled out, having been bought and sold. Warm light dances from the chandeliers above and traces golden patterns that curl in the mahogany walls. The sound of a piano’s song spills into the passageway.
My mother walks several paces behind me. Her gloved hands clasp together over her waist, and her heels snap against the floor. She’s a tall woman – taller than most men, and certainly taller than me, even though I’m pretty tall as well. She holds her height with pride. It’s intimidating. I, on the other hand, haven’t grown into my height even after sixteen years. My mother complains that I hunch.
“Isn’t there a single boy that strikes your interest?” she asks. The twinge of impatience in her voice is hard to ignore.
“Since I’d rather not have one at all, no – not particularly.”
My mother doesn’t respond. We’ve already had this discussion too many times before. Most other girls on the satellite receive a male slave for their sixteenth birthday. This 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. As my mother doesn’t want anyone to believe that she cannot afford to buy me a slave, I know that I will leave here today with at least one boy in following.
The boys here are the sons of men and women that didn’t have enough money to pay their taxes and the sons of men and women that committed some sort of crime. Some of the boys might even be criminals themselves, arrested by the military for smaller offenses – petty theft, perhaps, or breaking curfew. Once a citizen of our satellite breaks any military law, they relinquish their rights and are sold as slaves. Those who commit particularly offensive crimes have a choice between the labor camps and execution. Most choose execution.
I can feel the cold emitting from the marbled tiles through the soles of my shoes. I resist the urge to wrap my arms around one another and rub my skin for warmth. My mother would only complain that it’s unladylike, so I keep my hands at my side. I try not to look at the boys as my mother and I walk by. I stare at my reflection in the glass walls instead.
“And this one?” my mother asks. She stops in front of a case. I stop beside her and stare at the boy’s information card pinned to the glass. He’s fifteen years old. “He seems well-behaved, don’t you think? There are just some that seem so savage, so untrained. It’s surprising that they’re being sold at all. They ought to be euthanized, rather than risk defiant behavior. There are some owners that don’t know how to react when their slave gives them problems – acts rudely, acts defiantly – but really, it’s simple enough to have the slave euthanized. Save them the trouble.”
I wonder if the boys are able to hear, even if they can’t see us. “I don’t want this one.”
“Really, now,” she says. “Hurry and make your choice, or I’ll have to make one for you.”
“Isn’t that why you’re here anyway?” I ask. My mother looks at me with raised eyebrows, and I quickly turn my head away again. “There isn’t anything interesting about him.”
“Interesting?” my mother repeats. “Why should you want your slave to be interesting?”
I continue to stare at my reflection in the glass. “In case I should want to have a conversation with him, perhaps.”
My mother’s brow twists with disapproval, but she smiles as though I’m joking. “I can’t imagine what a master and a slave would talk about.”
I can’t imagine either, so I don’t say anything else. My mother turns away, the ends of her dress swirling around her feet. I have to hurry to keep up with her.
There’s a hollow thud, the sound of skin squishing against glass. I turn my head to the noise, as do the others in the hall. A few crane their heads curiously, while others frown. My mother stares at the glass case that’s in front of us. The boy inside has begun to slam his hands against the glass wall.
“Boys such as this,” my mother says. I can only assume she means that he ought to be executed. He slams his hands against the glass wall again, and my eyes leave my reflection in the glass. His heavy eyebrows cut over his eyes, and the muscles in his jaw jumps. The skin around his eyes narrows. The resentment on his face almost makes me take a step back, away from his glass case. He’s angry, and he’s not afraid to show that he is.
I smile. “I’d like this one, I think.”
“Unacceptable.” My mother doesn’t even hesitate, and she doesn’t smile as though I’m joking. She shakes her head. “Absolutely unacceptable.”
“You asked me to choose. This is the one I want.” When she only shakes her head again, I say, “I’m supposed to be an adult now. I should be able to make basic decisions. Don’t you think people will wonder why I’m not allowed to choose my own slave?”
My mother pauses. She’s always concerned about what other people may wonder – what other people will think. “And if you can’t control him?” she asks.
“It’d be a shame if I can’t even control my own slave.”
“A shame and an embarrassment,” she says. My mother is the type of woman that needs a moment of silence to mull over her own thoughts before she makes a decision. I stand with my hands laced in front, and glance around the hall as though I’m interested in the other customers and the glinting décor. The piano’s music reaches a high note before it fades away again.
“I will warn you,” she says. “If it turns out that you can’t train him, I won’t be very patient.”
I nod. “Of course.”