Nights in the palace are so different from the days. Days are filled with the bustle of anonymous servants, but nights are dominated by the closest of friends and family.
As I arrive at the House of Service, the mask is just starting to peel away. I smile and wink and scrunch up my face to feel all the different ways the glue can pull. It’s not the most adult thing I’ve ever done, but it is mesmerizing. I hardly notice the crowd lined up to return their masks.
I walk past the dirty, tired masses lined up outside. They’re waiting at the kiosks of Assurance for their small doles of Nectar. No, I must go inside to return my mask along with the other convicts. We won’t be paid in Nectar; those working off crimes simply have some of their debt stricken from the ledger. Criminals, in theory, are the only ones who age.
This district of Brilliance does not see as much crime, and the massive hall feels abandoned with so few people within it. Ruza is waiting at her desk along with the same priest from this morning.
“Hey,” I say as I tug at the edges of the mask.
“I have a trick,” Ruza says. “If I may...”
She reaches across her desk and and waves at me to lean forward. When I do, she pulls aside the sheer hood of the mask and pours a small amount of warm water from a walkwood cup.
The mask slides right off, and Ruza hands me the cup to drink from.
“You’ll be thirsty,” she says, “and the walkwood will help revitalize you.”
The cup is warm in my hands. Like all walkwood, the cup maintains a heat just below body temperature. It’s part of why the wood is in such high demand. That, and some people think walkwood vessels transfer some of their essence to whatever they hold.
I’ve learned enough about alchemy to know that isn’t true. The water is warm, though, and pouring it down my throat feels indistinguishable from magic.
“Damn,” I say. “That’s some good water.”
“Tired from all that time with the general?” The priest asks.
Sure, I’ll play along.
“Exhausted,” I say, breathless. “I... I really had no idea of my own stamina. You were right. I definitely learned something about myself.”
I give him a knowing smile before turning my attention to Ruza.
“Is that it?” I ask.
“That’s it,” she replies. “Come back tomorrow, and we’ll do it all again. Though, I’ll have a different assignment for you.”
“Great,” I say as I start to go, but something occurs to me. “How soon before I... feel... again.”
Ruza smiles a bit as she answers: “The ‘Servant’s Bliss’ will wear off fully in an hour or so, but you may start to notice a difference right away. You should get home to your Nectar before it gets rough.”
I nod and take my leave.
I don’t see Frejvid anywhere inside the house. Maybe he arrived before me. Though, he was assigned to Assurance. He may not have seen the sun going down from within the Great Well’s cavern.
I’ll see him in the morning, I guess. We’re in this together.
Last night, I wanted to kill him - and I still want to see him made into a fool - but we also share something. We’ve never served, and we’re serving the same sentence. I want to know what it is like for him. I want to know what it’s like for anyone.
Outside - now free from the constant barrage of “Servant’s Bliss” from the mask - I can see that the square beyond the house doors is bustling like I’ve never seen it. Weightmen line the area as recently-released servants barter and trade with the tiny slivers of Nectar they’ve been given.
Weightmen have been a reality for as long as I’ve lived, but they still seem odd to me. They’re knights, technically. Imperial knights. This square probably only contains one or two actual weightmen, the rest are merely pages or whatever they call themselves.
Weightmen assist in bartering by providing a medium of exchange - weight - with a recognized value. I think it’s supposed to be some measure of grain in their empire, but here we use their coins to denote a measure of Nectar. Some day, I’m sure, a new dynasty will rise and mint coins for our own use, but the trust in the Knights of Weight is so absolute that no one yet has bothered.
All the masks are off now, and I can see how much the people free of Service have in common. None are rich, none of the ones here anyway, and most have the same sun-beaten age to them as my partner from earlier. How am I going to recognize him tomorrow?
I suddenly feel exposed. The weightmen and their pages have the white-pale skin signature of Imperials, and all the Enlightened around them look like shadows in the growing yellow light of the ambertorch flies.
I’m still brown compared to the Imperials - like all my people - but were you to ask who I belonged with in this crowd... you may be hard-pressed to say that I belong with the people of Brilliance.
“Hey,” a voice calls out from the crowd.
As soon as I see him walking up, I recognize the swagger and flinch of my sparring partner from this morning. I raise my hand in salute, but I feel a pinch where one of his blows had landed on my ribs.
“I thought it was you,” he smiles.
“Yeah,” I say. “It’s me. I was wondering how I was ever going to spot you.”
“You’re easier to find,” he shrugs. “Have you changed your mind? Liberation is a great place to ease back into your normal mind.”
The Servant’s Bliss is still in my blood, and the urge to agree is strong.
“No,” I say. “It’s my first time performing service, and I know my father must be worried sick.”
“From the palace you come,” he says. “To the palace you return.”
“Hey!” I reply. “It’s not that. It is, yes. But it isn’t.”
I take a deep breath as this man stands only a stride from my body but whose life feels a mountain apart. Time and the sun are cruel to the people where he lives, and they do nothing to the people in my home.
“Tonight is for family,” I say. “I did something bad, and I think I can apologize. I don’t do that. It’s not my thing. While I’ve got an apology in me, I think I need to use it.”
He claps me on the shoulder.
“You palace-folk lead odd lives,” he says. “Humility is an uncommon virtue. Nurture it. Tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow,” I say. “I will drink you under the table, old man.”
“Bogdan,” he says.
“Bogdan... who?” I ask.
“Just Bogdan,” he says with some reservation.
“I’m Senka,” I hold up my hand in salute.
“Don’t tell me the rest, if there’s more,” he says. “I don’t want to know who I fought.”
“You know me better than my name would tell you.”
“Perhaps,” he says as he walks away, “but I would not like my chances if Justice took issue with my fighting someone with a House.”
I wonder what it must be like to be houseless. Milos - father’s steward - is houseless, as are many of the men and women we employ. Most of them have last names, though. I think all of them do. I’ll ask father about it.
He may be merciless, but he likes to teach. His answers might be good ones.
The walk back to the palace gates is a short one. The bustle of the day is replaced by the calm of night. Each step makes my muscles ache more, but my head also clears a little. I don’t know how much the drug in the mask affected me during my day of service, but the loss of its influence suggests that its effect was significant.
The guards salute as I walk past, and I return the pleasantry. I’m sure they recognize me as the heir of Service, but their manner is much more familiar as I walk past in just my servant’s gown.
The gown is filthy. It’s drenched in desert sand glued on by sweat. Parts of it are torn and stretched, and I think there there is a spot of blood near my knee. How did I not notice this before? Did the mask make me that blind?
I pass into the Service wing of the palace and can hear that all the rooms are empty. I’d forgotten that it was the second night of the Moonlight Ball. There is no hope that Father will be waiting at home, proud to embrace his daughter after a fine day of labor. No praise will be waiting.
I hope Milos is there. He’ll have a kind word and a cool drink.
Another set of footsteps echoes in the silent hall. I stop my moping trudge and raise my eyes to see what familiar face will greet me.
But the face is not familiar. The face is masked.
It’s a servant. It’s a servant at night.
Their mask is white - like mine was when serving General Rog - but this one is lined with black stones rather than golden beads. I’m unfamiliar with any house which might use that combination, but I don’t know all the masks.
Why is there a servant at night?
I remember stories and rumors whispered of a night servant that haunts Brilliance. It’s a story, though. There is no ghost of Service. That’s mad. What would that even mean?
“Hey,” I say to the servant.
They don’t reply. They simply walk down the corridor, passing me without a word.
Their skin is light - Imperial light - but they seem to have been burned. Well, singed. Near the mask and around two copper bracelets, their skin shines pink with irritation. This pinkness covers their whole face down to the neck and runs from wrist to elbow.
“Are you alright?” I ask as they turn the corner down toward the ballroom.
They’re gone. He’s gone. The servant was either a flat-chested woman with broad shoulders, or it was a man. They were well-muscled. I’d say that it was definitely a man, but I spent the whole day with General Rog and her soldiers. I now doubt all assumptions I’ve ever made about body shape. Period.
Also, I have seen a lot of sweaty, good-looking people today.
I am so sore.
I push open the door to my family’s quarters and am relieved to see Milos waiting for me.
“Mistress Senka,” he begins, “congratulations on your first day of service. I am so proud of you.”
Milos is wearing his house shirt in the family colors. It’s less ornate than my father’s, but it is functionally the same. He wears the baggy pants that are common amongst the desert peoples. He looks fashionable, and his silver jewelry compliments his tan skin. His shade is almost the same as my own, it’s part of why I trust his advice on colors and metals.
It’s good to see a familiar face.
“Did my father leave a message for me?” I ask.
Milos allows a slight, pregnant pause.
“I prepared some tea and some wine,” he waves to the dining table, “the first is hot, the second: cold. I’ve drawn up a bath, and I can heat up a pot to refresh it.”
“Please do,” I begin walking to the tub in my room. “I’ll need some Nectar in a bit, but not right away.”
“I’ll pour your cup,” Milos bows.
“Hang on,” I stop us both. “You’ve served, right?”
“I have,” he nods. “Before being hired by your father, I served both voluntarily and as punishment.”
I did not know that Milos had ever been sentenced.
“What did you do?” I ask.
“Clerical work, mostly,” he replies. “I balanced ledgers for a tailor who traded with the University.”
“No - I mean, that’s neat and all - and I bet that’s where you met Father,” I interject.
“Your mother, actually,” he corrects.
“Right, sorry,” I continue, “what did you do to get sentenced?”
“Stealing,” he replies. “Bread, rice, and small beer for my family. Clean water is in short supply beyond the palace walls.”
I remember the trading outside the House of Service.
“Milos,” I begin. “One can live on Nectar alone, yes, but it would take a lot of Nectar. How often - when doing service - did you trade your Nectar for food?”
“Most days,” he replied. “Any day that I didn’t steal.”
I’m silent for a moment, and I raise my palm to indicate I am thinking.
“I’m going to take that bath now,” I say. “But I want you to only bring as much Nectar as you would earn for a day’s service.”
“You’ll want more,” he replies.
“I know,” I say, “but I need to know how wanting feels.”