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Chapter 4

Zaria’s lessons teach both her servant-students lessons in humility, wisdom, and pain. I have plenty of new bruises for the Nectar to heal, but I have learned something that even the divine drink will never steal from me.

By the time we’ve served the general lunch, the three of us are acting almost like friends. Well, friends where one friend has absolute authority over all of the others. So, not much like friends at all, but we are friendly.

I know that I should be angry, but I don’t seem to be able to be angry. It’s hard to feel much of anything, really. Even the pains of combat feel dulled. It must be the mask. Father says the dayglue does more than hold the masks on. Maybe it’s the glue.

True to her stated schedule, General Rog sends us down to prepare the drilling grounds for her arrival. She has a tent - far more permanent than most tents I encounter - already prepared about a league beyond the palace walls. The tent - unlike her quarters - is all business. There’s a medical bed and a store of nectar. A surgeon rests on standby, though she wears both the emblem of Assurance and the colors of Defense. A number of odd contraptions of metal, wood, and rope are displayed near the walls. Behind a silk curtain, a chair, a table, and a cot await their general.

The other servant and I have some privacy while we fetch water, nuts, and fruit to stock the command tent; we’re afforded half an hour to clean the rugs and sweep out the worst of the wandering desert sand.

“Where do you celebrate your freedom, tonight?” The other servant asks.

“Home,” I reply. “A bath is all I want in the world.”

“Would that I were so fortunate,” he replies before leaving us to a short silence.

I’ve never thought about the daily lives of the servants from beyond the palace before. My father prefers our quarters be staffed by paid labor rather than those working off their debt to Assurance. We have some servants occasionally, of course, but I think Father vets each and every one. They don’t ever really feel like strangers.

This man, though, he’s as alien to me as the Prince. Maybe more so.

“Are you...” I don’t know how to ask it right. “How do you celebrate?”

“Down by the wharf,” he says, “ there is a public house: Liberation. If you show them your Service token, they give you one drink. If you show them a token each day of a week, they give you a meal as well.”

“A meal is a good prize,” I reply.

“No meal is Nectar,” he grumbles. “Nectar is what we want.”

He nods to the vat of Nectar beside the surgeon’s table.

“I only see that much Nectar in the palace,” he shakes his head. “I’ve held naught but a thimble at a time in thirty years.”

I look at the skin on his hands and the frown beneath his veil. It’s not just the sun which has burned him, he carries the scars of age as well. No one in the palace ages. Aging is a choice. Beyond the walls, aging must be as sure as piss and pain.

“You should come to Liberation tonight,” he says. “There is much to life beyond the palace.”

“Not tonight,” I say, “ you beat me too good for tonight. Tomorrow, can you lead me to this ‘Liberation’?”

“I’ll await you by the gates of the House of Service.”

The tent entrance blows open as though by a great whirlwind, and General Rog is with us. She is surrounded by lieutenants, captains, and their minor functionaries. Servants swarm in, each wearing Defense’s traditional red masks, and they set about serving the water we fetched before.

General Rog commands us to keep her supplied in fruit and nuts.

“Should I hunger or thirst, we shall play our last exercise again, but I shall be your opponent.”

What followed was a mad survey of all the defenses the Great Well has against the Raptors. Sometimes the surveys came in the form of reports. Other times, the whole entourage marched to the location of a military drill and bore witness to some display of arms. All of it was strange.

I’ve rarely seen our avian enemies overhead, and I’ve never seen them anywhere near to the ground. Sometimes they pass so swiftly and without conflict that no alarm is raised. They’ve gotten into the palace a few times since I was young, but we were always secreted away to some sealed room.

Apparently, they like to drag away the children of the Dynasties. That’s the story they tell us.

More than anything, though, the Raptors try to seize the Great Well. They’ve gotten in twice that I can remember, but it’s hard to say. One or two may fly in for a moment before being repelled, but that’s not the same as taking it over. They can never take it over. Not for long. Brilliance needs the well.

Our last stop for the survey is the mouth of the well itself. The mouth is a wide hole in the ground that opens into a natural cavern. At the center of that cavern, a placid pool of iron water rests. The iron water pool is unfathomably deep; Brilliance has never discovered the bottom.

The mouth is surrounded by layers of crumpled, stone walls of all sorts. Sandstone, marble, and granite all crumbled beneath the relentless attacks of the birds. This time - as it has for years now - the mouth of the well is protected by Rog’s Cage.

It’s not her invention, per se, but it is her project. It’s a massive, semi-spherical cage that covers the whole of the fifty-stride wide mouth with a dome of metal. The structure is formed of countless steel triangles with the occasional pentagon to shape the mess. Each junction is reinforced with chitin pads, feathers, and other alchemical miracles to repel blows.

The cage is made from more steel than has ever been produced by the Enlightened. There’s more steel in the structure than even Kragsmoth can make in a year. Or two years. Maybe even more than that. Despite the opulent splendor of Brilliance, Rog’s Cage dwarfs all other expenses.

The walls fell to boulders. The birds - by whatever magic keeps them aloft - can carry and throw boulders. Fighting the Raptors from within the walls is like withstanding a siege against a host of Imperial war machines. No wall can hold out against their onslaught, but the cage has managed.

That’s why she’s the general.

The cage has taken a beating, certainly, but it is more easily repaired than stone, and it provides certain advantages.

Any wall or fortress that has held the Great Well has required its defenders to run around the structure to defend from attackers. The cage, however, allows its guardians to traverse both over and under the structure.

“East!” General Rog shouts.

Ten soldiers leap into action. Half wear armor and carry massive hooked polearms, while the other half wear light, padded armor with javelins and rolls of rope. The armored soldiers clamber swiftly over the top of the dome, the others slip through the openings of the cage and swing across on on long chains that dangle from the cage itself. When the soldiers reach the other side, the light ones anchor their ropes to the cage and toss their javelins to the armored soldiers. They, in turn, nock the javelins into their hooks and fling them thirty strides to the east.

The ropes follow, and any creature under or hit by the barbed javelins would be dragged to the ground. When the javelins land, the light soldiers rush up to them and recover them with long, cruel knives drawn.

“Tossers and cutters,” General Rog is standing next to me. “I had more dignified terms before, but the soldiers like to be crude.”

“North!” she shouts.

Thus the process repeats over and over. Sometimes she calls out two directions, or even three. When she calls too quickly, a second group of soldiers takes over. Whenever a soldier has made three runs, they take a break and cycle into the waiting group.

There are no accidents, but I hear the soldiers speak of the ones who have fallen.

Fifty strides down past the lip of the opening, the surface of the iron water ripples with its strange slow waves. The dangling feeders of the sacred worms slip into the water and slowly drag out their lightly-glowing quarry. Few who have fallen survive. People are not buoyant in iron water. If someone is quick enough with a javelin, sometimes the poor soul can be saved.

No one can swim out. No one can climb. To be submerged into the iron water is to slip entirely from the land of the living.

“Don’t lean too far,” General Rog addresses me. “It’s mesmerizing, but it’s better seen from Assurance’s caverns.”

“I know,” I say. “I just wonder what it’s like to fall. To know that the rush of the water is coming and that nothing can save you. I wonder what that moment is like. Whether it’s peaceful.”

“You’ll find out someday,” she shrugs, “it just may be a long time coming. Don’t dwell on it.”

The troops are busying themselves packing their gear, and the approaching dusk paints the desert in purples, oranges, and reds.

“You need to get going,” General Rog says. “You need to be out of my sight before your mask falls off. Is this your first time?”

“Yeah,” I say. “Is it obvious?”

“Yes, of course,” she laughs. “You did fine. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve just been at this since before there was Service at all.”

She watches at the sun begins to kiss the dunes on the horizon.

“It’s going to hurt when the mask comes off,” she says. “Not from the mask itself - though that will feel funny - but it will be your body that aches. You don’t know it now - maybe you do know it, but you don’t feel it. You’re in a lot of pain. You fought hard, but you worked harder this afternoon.”

She pauses, but I can’t tell if she expects me to speak. Maybe I’m meant to leave.

“Draw up a bath and have some Nectar handy,” she says. “Don’t drink it yet, but submerge yourself in the water. Remember that feeling, that pain. It’s going to be hard to appreciate it then, but that feeling is accomplishment. It’s work. It’s... important.

“Life can’t just be joy, drinking, and sex. It can’t be all the pleasant things. Sometimes life treats you rough, and those are the times that life is molding you.”

She’s silent again, and I know I have to go. I want to tell her who I am. I want to tell her that life with my father is tough enough, thank you.

I think of the hands of the man who served with me today. I think of his aged skin and his sun-scorched knuckles. Life molds different people in different ways, but life’s molding is never gentle.

“When I was assigned to you,” I nod at the general, “I was worried about what you would ask of me. The priest of Assurance spoke so... salaciously. I thought... well.”

“I only do that with people who have learned to say ‘no’,” she stops me. “You’re an obedient little servant and a pretty one. But you’re new. You’ve not learned how to labor beneath the influence of the mask. Come back when I can believe your consent is your own.”

“Go,” she says as she walks back to her tent.

Watching her in the crimson sunlight, I realize that while she worries that I can’t say “no,” I worry that I might say “yes.”

Next Chapter: Chapter 5