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Chapter 2

The pre-dawn light bathes the city in a golden glow. The gilt dome of the House of Service shines like a second sun over the line of men and women awaiting entry wearing their linen servant gowns.

One would-be servant, however, stands out from the rest. The princeling stands in his immaculate cotton dressing gown. Just like a barbarian, he does not own even the most common necessities.

“Milos,” I call to my steward, “go bring a service gown for the young prince.”

Frejvid Pajari sees me approaching. He heard my instructions as well. Maybe I can’t beat him in a fight, but I can be more magnanimous. I will be the most loving, most humble, opponent he’s ever faced. There’s more than one way to show this barbarian his inferiority.

“You don’t owe me any favors,” Prince Frejvid says. “I did not know who you were. If you’d spoke of my father that way. Well... in my country, I would expect a blade.”

“My people follow a path of peace and enlightenment,” I reply. “No mere words should tempt us to violence.”

“Right,” he shakes his head, “that’s why your Justice carries a truncheon.”

“Yes,” I hold my superior chin high, “but she does not strike over just words.”

Behind me, I hear a subdued snort.

I turn to see a young woman avert her eyes. She’s thin and malnourished despite the obvious muscle-tone of her arms. Her slight frame and dark skin make the pale gown she wears seem to shine.

When she sees that I am looking at her, she stops feigning indifference and looks me up and down.

“You palace-folk don’t know anything,” she says with anger masking as humor. “You come down here once a year - parading in your pale skin and unpatched clothes - you have never known the daily kiss of the sun’s light or justice’s club.”

“I know that club well enough,” Frejvid protests and step with his formerly-broken leg.

The bone has not quite set right. He can only barely bend it and the pain of motion is evident.

“Oh, you poor thing,” the woman oozes sarcasm, “and how many moons did that take to heal?”

Frejvid remains silent.

“Oh?” She continues. “Was your healing not measured in moons? Was it measured in Nectar?”

“Of course!” I cut in. “Nectar is the gift of life! A few draughts restore youth, beauty, and heal the wounds of time!”

Why is the woman bemoaning us the use of Nectar? The House of Assurance provides Nectar for all in Brilliance. Even Enlightened abroad may find Nectar at the Houses of Assurance in any nation.

“Draughts!” The woman shouts. “I’ve never seen a draught of Nectar in my whole life, and you speak of draughts as something you can earn in one ... what? Week? One moon? One...”

She pauses and glares at us both.

“One day...” She accuses. “It was one day of service, wasn’t it?”

“I have never served before,” Frejvid says. “I am granted my Nectar as a guest of the palace.”

“My father’s work earns mine,” I reply.

The disciples of Service usher us into the house; the prince and I are led away from the young woman.

I’m troubled by her words. I rarely leave the palaces of Brilliance, and I don’t know much of the city beyond. I may know the inner working of the Dynasties and their Board, but that tells me little of how the people of my homeland really live.

Frejvid and I are made to wait in a vast temple room lined with desks and murals dedicated to the trials of Service. The first mural shows the life of a man in dull greys, blues, and browns as they toil under a red and unforgiving sun. With each step, the man ages. Finally, just before an oasis, the man is nothing but a pile of bones.

The second mural depicts the discovery of the Great Well with its Iron Immortals shimmering in silver. The third image shows the first Bringer of Light mixing Nectar from the sacred worms. Beyond that, each picture shows the founding of one dynasty after another. Those with the Nectar are always shown beneath layers of gold.

Before the Nectar, there was only suffering and death. The Nectar brought us into a golden age without end - The Age of Light - and we serve to maintain the light of Brilliance.

“How many of them are still alive?” Frejvid asks.

“Who?” I reply.

“The people in the paintings,” he says. “Your Nectar lets you live forever, right? Where are all the people in these paintings?”

“It’s been only a few hundred years,” I begin, “and the Nectar doesn’t stop you from being killed. I know that General Rog knew the first Bringer of the Light. There was a lot of war when we first founded the nation. War and disease. The Nectar wasn’t as perfect then. There are some remaining from that first generation, but not many.”

“I have not met General Rog,” Frejvid responds. “She must be terrifying at a few centuries in age.”

“How so?” I ask.

“You know,” he frowns. “Wrinkled and grey.”

“You don’t really know how this works, do you?” I smile as we’re led to one of the temple desks.

Behind the desk, a disciple of Service wears the pendant of the grasping hands that signifies her order. Her hands are stained with ink as she marks columns and tabulations.

Beside her, a priest of Assurance sets down two walkwood boxes and begins to heat a jar of faintly glowing orange liquid. The priest, like most priests, is paler even than I am. Priests of Assurance spend most their time in the alchemy caves by the iron wells tending to the sacred worms or brewing the Nectar. Otherwise, they are indoors seeing to the application of Service.

Of all the Dynasties, Service and Assurance are the closest in relation. My father expects me to take the reins as the Director of Service, but I don’t care for the management of thousands of workers day after day. I’m more fascinated by the fight against the Raptors or in the development of new applications for the Nectar.

“Little Senka,” Service’s disciple says. “This is not how I expected to see you enter the house. I expected you watching over my shoulder rather than across from my seat.”

This disciple is not some random functionary, she’s my aunt, Ruza. Ruza holds a high office in the family, there’s no reason for her to be directing two servants. I look around and see that most of the desks in the house have long lines receiving their orders and taking their masks. Ruza’s desk has no one else waiting for it.

“Young Prince Pajari,” Ruza turns to Frejvid, “do you possess any special skills?”

“I am the son of Ragnar Pajari, Lord of the Southern Sky, Captain of the High Guard, Master of Air and Fire,” he rattles off the titles with pride. “I am versed in all skills martial and mechanical. I am the Raptor’s Bane. Slayer of the avian enemy. So, yes, I have certain special skills.”

“So you say,” Ruza dips her quill in the ink. “You will report to the harvest room of the Great Well. Assurance will teach you restraint.”

“I would better serve the Dynasty of Defense,” Frejvid proclaims.

“You are a killer, little Prince,” Ruza replies, “and our army is not one of killers. Learn to respect life before vowing to defend it. Apply your mask.”

The priest beside the desk begins painting the now brightly-glowing dayglue onto a simple, black chitin mask. The silk veil which hangs from it is white as the west sands.

“Hang on,” Frejvid protests, “those masks are glued on? You’re going to glue it to my face!”

Both Ruza and I chuckle.

“It’s just dayglue, boy,” the priest smiles. “It falls off as soon as the sun sets. Do they not have alchemists in your - what do they call them - tribe?”

“Kingdom,” Frejvid says with a frown as he and the priest negotiate putting on his mask.

“What service do you wish to perform, little Senka?” Ruza asks.

That’s why we were brought to this desk. Father set this up. He’s giving me special treatment. His kindness is a prison.

“What’s the toughest work in the district?” I ask.

“Spice harvest or the quarry,” Ruza replies, “but you’ll do neither of those. I suggest you think of something closer to the palace. Within its walls, perhaps. There is also work to be done right here.”

I see that she has a chair set out for me. Like Service’s ledger, Father has planned my whole life. Today’s labor, learn the art of service.

“General Rog,” I say. “I’d like to serve General Rog. I was too cavalier with the sanctity of life, I should learn my lesson from her.”

“Defense?” Ruza shrugs. “If you say so. Though the lessons you learn will not be those you desire.”

She makes a few marks with her quill and gestures me to the priest.

Prince Frejvid must have walked away, and the priest is applying the glowing glue to a white mask with golden beads and a yellow veil. I’ve seen these masks before, but I had not realized they were for General Rog’s servants.

“Isn’t Defense’s mask red?” I ask.

“It is,” the priest replies, “but you are going to work for the general directly. She has her own private order of servants.”

The priest is smiling, and I see that Ruza is rolling her eyes.

“What have I gotten myself into?” I ask.

“Nothing you won’t walk away from,” the priest says. “We are all called to serve in our own ways. Your way... will be...”

He claps his mouth shut for a moment.

“Well,” he continues. “I look forward to hearing about your experience.”

Next Chapter: Chapter 3