The mask clings to my face with a euphoric glow. The halls of the palace don’t feel unfamiliar - I navigate them just as well as any other day - but they still feel new. The walkwood shutters seem to radiate a heat which is not merely reflected sunlight. The tile floor echoes like music. Even the sandstone walls shine like gold.
Is this what every servant feels or did they put something special in my glue?
The sun has just passed the horizon when I push open the doors into Defense’s wing of the palace. Half a dozen servants in red masks look up at me briefly before returning to their work. Most are sweeping up the sand from the morning winds, and others are carrying simple meals to and from the nearby kitchen.
That seems like a good place to start.
The steps to the kitchen descend down two flights before terminating into a narrow, long room lined with strange stoves. Three fires blaze, but the room still feels chill as morning dew. Vents above the fires are lined with Raptor feathers which rattle and shake like dice in a gambler’s hands.
Only one person in the kitchen goes without a servant’s mask. He’s a sun-weathered man whose shirtless chest is covered in scars. His billowing, silk pants barely fail to conceal his wooden leg. This man must be a veteran of the wars, though whether against the Raptors or the other nations of Promise I cannot be sure.
I kneel slightly and place my palms up as I’ve seen so many servants do in my life.
“First day?” He looks at me.
“Yes, sir,” I reply. “What service can I be to Defense?”
“Oh, girl,” he shakes his head and his long dreads wobble behind him. “You don’t serve Defense today. Though I will get you started off right.”
He pulls a bottle of wine from a drawer.
“Grab a goblet on your way out,” he points to a rack of them. “Don’t worry about opening the bottle, the general will manage that.”
I take the bottle and grab a goblet as I leave.
“Oh!” He says as I go. “I’m not sure what they told you, but keep a light step as you enter. One of her servants has already arrived, and they may be engaged already.”
As I walk up the stairs, I worry what he means by “engaged.” The way he said it was like the guards talk about their conquests down in the Moonlamp District. Have I volunteered as a concubine?
Each step makes me more nervous as I head to her private quarters. The front of Defense’s wing bustles with activity, but the halls grow quiet as I press forward. Soon enough, I see no servants. After passing a silk curtain that blocks off the whole hallway, I see that seven full rooms lie vacant. At the end of that hall, I can see the door to the general’s quarters.
Unlike the other doors of the palace, the general’s door is made of neither still nor walkwood. No, her’s is made of carved, white chitin. It is just like my mask, but rather than being beaded in gold, it is fitted with black stones. They might be obsidian or some alchemical stone, but their purpose becomes obvious as I draw near.
All the while, I’ve heard my steps echo off the stones of the palace hallways. Here, though, the only echoes are from behind me. I snap my fingers once - the kind of loud snap that should echo for a hundred yards - but I hear nothing bounce back from the door or the wall it is attached to.
What have I gotten myself into?
Unsure of what to do, I rap my knuckles on the door. There is, of course, no sound.
“Hello?” I call only to hear my voice echo down the hall behind me.
I press down the handle on the door, and the metal latch noiselessly slides away. I feel resistance from the hinges, but no noisy screech ensues. The old metal hinges are silent as the night.
“Oh good,” a warm, woman’s voice calls from inside. “I was worried my cup would run dry.”
I push the door wide open.
The large room is dominated by two opulent pieces of furniture: a massive bed dominates the far wall and a long, curved couch stretches around the center of the floor. The four large windows are open and a cool breeze passes through. I hear the rattle of Raptor feathers, and I know some charm must be bringing the unseasonable weather to the space.
I can’t focus on the ornate silks and strange contraptions adorning the room. Instead, I focus on the woman lounging on the couch. She’s on her side wearing only a thin silk gown, golden bracelets, and a necklace of sharp, white chitin and shining gems.
As she lounges, a man - a white-masked servant - knots tight braids into her hair. For a moment, he pulls too hard, and the woman bites her lower lip. The rush of red that floods her lip compliments the soft brown of her skin.
“Come in, palace-dweller,” the woman says, “I won’t bite just yet. Come closer and pour me some wine.”
She raps her fingernails on the surface of the crimson walkwood table ahead of her. One bottle rests on the table already and a copper goblet lays on its side beside it. I can see the glint of red from where the contents of the goblet spilled out.
When I reach the table, I set my own bottle and goblet down atop it, stand up her old goblet, and tip the old bottle to pour it.
“It’s empty,” I say.
“Is it?” She asks. “Bring it to me.”
She sits up as I approach. I can see her skin press against her gown as she shifts. Even in the cool breeze, she’s sweating slightly, and the silk clings to her shoulders, arms, and breasts.
She snatches the bottle from my hands and quickly tosses it over her shoulder and onto the bed.
“Good girl,” she smiles. “So obedient.”
She grabs both my wrists and turns my hands palms up. Her grip is tight, tighter even than my father’s grip. It really is her: General Zaria Rog. This isn’t some concubine or imposter. This isn’t some prank. This is the longest-serving member of the Board of Dynasties - the Master General herself.
I’ve never seen her out of her military attire or formal dress. It’s hard to recognize her like this. Drunk - clearly - but also informal. Maybe it’s the effect of the mask, I know it messes with perception.
“Soft palms and fingers,” the general says. “Pale skin even on the backs of the hands. Well, pale for one of us. It’s a shame they didn’t send that prince to me.”
When she says “prince” she’s looking right into my eyes.
No one is supposed to know who their servants are. That’s why we wear the masks. It’s less of a disguise than a reminder. Servants are unknown. We don the masks in the mornings and shed them at night. Do not do something in front of a servant that you would not have the whole of the palace know.
My eyes must have widened; General Rog is wearing a new smile.
“I thought so,” she stands up, uncomfortably close. “Bring my dueling blade. It’s on the table over there.”
I take a step back and she snaps to the other servant. She orders him to grab two clubs from the corner.
The dueling blade is a relic of the old times. They were traditional in Brilliance even after the enlightenment, but not for long. Honor, briefly, eclipsed life in value, but soon the sacredness of life outshone the romance of dancing blades.
“Why do you need this?” I say as I lift the sword.
The general clicks her tongue twice, “you were doing so well. I will have to tell Service he needs to see that even his palace-folk need to know servant manners. I’m sure he’ll pay attention. He likes when I whisper in his ear.”
I don’t like the sound of that.
“Never fear,” she says. “It’s not for either of you. That’s what the clubs are for.”
The man behind her freezes, and I can see the frown form beneath his veil.
“Oh good,” I say as I hand the blade over, “it’s not a day in the palace without a good beating.”
“Well,” she says with a nod. “I hear that’s true in some houses; nasty rumors tend to spread when you don’t silence the doors.”
She looks at me with serious eyes: “There’s a lesson there. About rumors. And power. But that’s not today’s lesson.”
“Oh, and what is today’s lesson?” I ask.
“The schedule is as follows, listen carefully,” she looks the long blade up and down. “Drinking, clubs, drinking, lunch, drills, and some experimentation. Then your day will be over.”
“Hold this,” she says as she hands me the bottle I brought with me.
“Yes, ma’am,” I say.
“So obedient!” She smiles and slashes with her blade!
I lean away, but it doesn’t matter. The swing hits true, but she wasn’t aiming for me.
The blade strikes the lip of the bottle just at the base of the annulus. The top of the bottle slices off; cork, glass, and brass ring fly into the air. I’m so scared that I just clutch the bottle in my shaking hands.
“Pour both goblets,” she says. “You’re both learning an important lesson today. You’ll both benefit from applying it in your homes.”
She outlines the lesson for us both. It’s something of a competition. We each have a goblet on opposite sides of the couch. We’re each given one of the wooden clubs. Knock over the other person’s goblet, and you must may drink from your own. Then we repeat.
So, it’s going to be a fight, then. I’m getting a lot of that, lately.
I size up my opponent.
He’s taller than me. Darker, too. I take a cue from General Rog and look to his hands. The backs of them are dark, as are his shoulders and neck. He works outside. I can see his rough knuckles as he grips his club. He’s from outside the palace.
I remember the woman that accosted Frejvid and I outside the House of Service. If this man bears even a fraction of that woman’s frustration, I may be in for a beating.
I can’t afford to hold back.
I rush forward - keeping one hand above another at the base of the grip - mimicking poses of soldiers wielding broadswords in old illustrations of the wars. Arms ahead of me, bent, with the hands resting at waist level. I take big, wide strides to keep my center of mass low and my knees slightly bent. It feels weird, but it also feels like I have a lot of power.
I don’t know what else to do, but I sure seem to have the look right.
The other servant - I don’t have any name to call him by - takes an entirely different stance. He holds the club just above his shoulder with its head pointed back. He’s only using one hand, and he’s got the other one up like a boxer ready for a brawl.
I don’t know how to respond to that.
When we’re close, I thrust the head of my club towards his chest, but he just brushes it away with his free hand. Crack! I feel the force of his swing crash into my ribs. Then I feel a sharp pain as he smashes his knee into my chest. He pushes me aside and walks to my goblet.
I don’t hear it fall.
I look up from where I’m curled on the ground. He waits until my eyes meet his before he gently nudges the goblet over.
Its contents spill onto the ground.
“You,” General Rog indicates me, “clean up that mess.”
“You,” she points to my opponent, “take a drink. Take seconds. And take your time.”
While the other servant nurses his drink, General Rog takes me through some of the basics of personal combat.
“Your stance wasn’t bad, but it looked like you learned from a picture book,” she begins. “If you are going to fight, you need to know your options so well you can execute on them faster than a heartbeat. You need to be quick to act. That’s fundamental. That’s the start. Because a fight, a real fight, is about reading your opponent and trusting your instincts to make the right moves.”
“How long does that take?” I ask.
“Do you dance?” she replies.
“Yeah,” I say. “All the time. Half my job is dancing.”
“Do you have to think about the steps?”
“No,” I say. “It took me years to learn to dance, and it can take weeks or months to master a new one.”
“Great!” The general says. “Your body is your most important weapon, and you already know it. Just like a dance, you just need a few weeks to learn to use a club!”
She applauds, and I don’t think I’ve ever been condescended to so heartily.
“How many times do I need to perform this little exercise today?” I ask.
“Until you win.”
“He’s better than me,” I say. “How am I supposed to win?”
“Think of a partner dance - the hardest dance you’ve ever performed,” she pauses to let me picture it. “What would you call your partner if he drank like that?”
The general points over to the other servant. He’s just finished his first goblet of wine, and he pours the second one full to the brim.
I sit down and wait for him to finish his drinks.
I whisper to the general: “I’d call him a fool.”