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Chapter 6

A knock at the door announces the unwelcome arrival of an early morning. The sky is just starting to change color, and the stars are just beginning to hide from the light that outshines them all. Darkness leaves Brilliance just as Service begins its day.

Milos accompanies me to the House of Service again. Yesterday, I think he was acting as a guard, careful to keep me from straying from my assigned path. Today, though, we are both certain of my destination.

I wave goodbye to him when I reach the doors, and I walk straight on to Aunt Ruza’s desk. She’s working with a different priest this time: a darker-skinned woman with a stern face.

“Aunt Ruza,” I begin, “do I report to you today as well?”

“Yes, my little niece,” she says. “Just come to me every morning for your assignment. I handle all sentences handed down to those living at the palace.”

“That can’t be very many,” I say.

“I have other duties, though more report to me than just Lord Pajari and yourself.” She sighs. “The two of you are just the most punctual.”

I follow the line of her eyes and see Frejvid approaching. She called him “Lord” rather than “Prince”. Have I used the wrong title all along? Would I have cared yesterday?

“How was your day of serving our beloved toadmaster?” Aunt Ruza asks the foreign noble.

“Tiring,” he says. “Gross. Awful. Mostly gross.”

“Hang on,” I say. “What’s a toadmaster?”

“It’s a nickname that the master alchemist has held too long,” Ruza replies. “Decades ago, it bothered him, but now I think he more than tolerates it. I’ve heard him even say it once himself.”

Master Alchemist Davor Zupan is notorious at the palace. He’s eccentric in the extreme, known to show up to parties dressed in a smock and still carrying his tools. He spends most of his time in the caves. I did not know he was called “toadmaster.”

“Yeah,” Frejvid yawns, “he’s as strange as his work. Am I going back there today?”

“Absolutely,” Ruza gestures towards the priest. “He was quite pleased with you.”

Frejvid stands by the priest to await the application of his mask and dayglue. The lord looks exhausted. He sags in his stance rather than bearing the proud posture I’ve always seen him use. He looks different. Tired. Weak.

I wonder if he speaks to his countrymen when he sees them. The weighment or their pages must have loads of news to tell about his home country. I can’t imagine going even a month without some form of palace gossip. There is always some colorful anecdote about this board member or that. Who does Frejvid wait to hear about?

“I’d like to serve the master alchemist today,” I say to Ruza.

“I’m glad to hear that,” she replies. “He’s always short on hands. He prefers a certain level of education and enthusiasm. Besides, I know you could learn a thing or two about the alchemy of Assurance if you are to be director some day.”

I don’t like to be reminded. Being addressed as “Heir of Service” has become so rote that it doesn’t carry weight with me. It might as well be another name. However, saying that I’ll be director some day... that’s different.

My father’s retirement could be decades or even a century away. He’s had wives and children before, but none of them ever took his place. Being young for a hundred years or more makes marriage and inheritance into odd concepts. We still use terms - like “heir” - from before the Enlightenment. I don’t know why my father treats me so differently from his other children. They’ve never lived with me, and I only hardly know them.

I think Mother was special. I wonder how she is. Does she think of me often?

Probably never.

“Let’s do this,” I say as I move to stand before the priest.

The process is less troubling than the first time, and this mask is much less ornate than what General Rog uses. The mask of Assurance is a plain, deep blue. It’s made of the same cut and shaped chitin as the others, but it lacks the decoration. It has only the mandatory sheer silk hood and veil. No jewelry. Simple.

I can feel the dayglue twisting my will immediately. I want to agree to serve. I want to be thanked. I want to do things. The feelings are all simple drives, and I notice them much more clearly now that they aren’t so new.

I can see why General Rog doubted any consent given under the masks influence. I’ll have to learn to resist.

Ruza tells me directions for how to get to the caverns surrounding the Great Well. Frejvid knows the way, but it’s good to hear them again. Also, I think the day glue is helping my memory somehow. I can recall every direction perfectly.

Frejvid and I walk together, and I see that he has assumed his practiced posture again. The euphoric influence of the mask must let him relax into it. Maybe that’s how it works. I’ll have the opportunity to ask the master himself in a moment.

“How was your day with the General?” Frejvid asks.

“Different,” I say. “I think she knew who I was, but she only hinted at it once. She taught me and another servant how to fight against people wielding clubs.”

“She taught you to fight against regulators?” He sounds shocked.

“Not in those exact words,” I reply, “but that seems to have been the purpose.”

“Funny,” he says. “A club is different than a knife or a sword. Amateurs will swing just about anything wildly in a fight, but if your opponent knows what they’re doing... well... everything is different.”

“You fight a lot?” I ask.

“I did,” he nods and slows his steps. “Before I left.”

He walks in slow silence for a while, and I worry he’ll make us late. But that pace lasts only a moment before he trots to catch up with me.

“We practice against people -other warriors - but our main opponent is the Raptors.” He’s talking more quickly now. “My old man would say, ‘keep your eyes on the sky, boy. That’s where the enemy is at.’ He was mostly right.”

“Why don’t you go back?” I ask. “It’s clear that you are proud of your work.”

“Not every enemy is in the sky,” he starts to jog ahead.

I catch up with his long strides as we step into the stairway descending down into Assurance’s caves. We’ve been silent longer than I’d like, and his ominous declaration worries me.

“You should have seen the tossers and cutters practicing...” I begin.

“Tossers?” He exclaims. “You know what that means, right?”

“I live in the palace,” I reply, “that does not make my ears unhearing of crass humor.”

“Okay,” he says. “Good. I started to worry about... you know... stuff.”

“Very eloquent,” I laugh. “Is this the door?”

Ruza has mentioned that we’d reach a series of doors, and that we were to knock at and enter the one with the mark of the sacred worm.

The door is set into an excavated stone hallway lined with glowing jars. The light isn’t the same yellow tone emitted by the ambertorch flies, but it seems to be a relative. It pulses slowly, but never quite goes dim. It’s slightly more green than I would like.

“Yeah, that’s the one,” Frejvid says. “Brace yourself for the smell. It’s like snakeshit with a hint of iron.”

I knock twice on the wooden door and grab its corroded, copper handle. All the doors in the hall are lined with now-green copper. Copper is not flashy as the steel from Kragsmoth or The Empire, but it gets the job done. It’s cheap and durable, but copper is rarely used for hardware within the palace. Though, we’re not in the palace anymore. We are beneath it.

As I push the door open, I catch my first whiff of the lab’s signature smell. Frejvid’s description is not wrong, but it doesn’t do the scent any justice. It’s important to know that the air that blows out is moist. It clings to the skin. That clinging moisture is what carries the hint of iron. The deathly smell of reptile feces isn’t from reptiles; it comes from amphibians.

Dozens of large, dull-colored toads rest all around the room. Only one is on on a lab table, but he doesn’t look happy to be there. He is suspended by his legs over a vat of boiling fluid. The fumes from the fluid cling to the toad’s grey-green skin then drip back down in bright orange droplets.

I could be wrong about the color. Everything is lit by the same sickly green phosphorescent lamps.

“Oh good, you are here,” the only human occupant of the room says. “It’s a pleasure to see you back again.”

The toadmaster - I assume - speaks precisely. He’d be a baritone if he were to sing, but he speaks near the top of his range. It lends his voice a tinny sound with a low rumble underneath. Were he to croak, it would seem perfectly natural.

He is the palest Enlightened I’ve ever seen. I’m so surprised by this that I have to stop to think if I have ever seen him before. Do I really just know him by reputation?

“Oh, yes,” the toadmaster looks over at me. “Introduce yourself. Not by name. Obviously. I need to know what you do. You don’t look like a lifter, a hauler, a muscle person.”

“I...” I wonder how to summarize myself. “I live in the palace. I write, do sums, and dance. I have a little education in alchemy, but my curiosity exceeds that.”

“Good-good.” He nods before addressing Frejvid. “Go to the second chamber and milk the beetles as I taught you. You’ll have less supervision today, so you may need to use more sedative. They’re calmer near me.”

Frejvid wordlessly begins walking towards a door at the back of the cavern. As he walks, I see him briefly bathed in a blue light. I see the source. What I thought was a looking glass mounted on the wall is instead a window. It’s a window into the well itself. I’ve never seen it from down here, and I’ve always wanted to see the sacred worms up close.

Without even realizing it, I take a step forward and crane my neck to look around.

“You’ve never seen them?” The toadmaster asks.

“I have not,” I reply without thinking. “Do they smell as bad as the toads?”

“Oh?” He does no sound offended. “I’ve never thought of it. The worms are almost scentless. Whatever it is that they eat from the iron water does not decompose. They smell...”

He pauses, considering.

“They smell as the worms do,” he shrugs. “I’ve never given their odor any thought.”

He quickly unties the toad he was working with before and sets it loose to scamper away across the ground.

“We can work with them today, for a bit, if you would like,” the toadmaster says. “My tasks are on no particular schedule.”

“I am your servant, sir,” I bow my head. “I will do as you bid.”

I feel lightheaded as I say it. It’s a line we’re taught about servants, part of an old tale, but saying it somehow made the euphoria rise. Does willful subservience make the glue stronger?

“Of course, of course,” he repeats himself often when he speaks, “but you are curious. Curiosity should be nurtured. What curiouses you?”

His peculiar way of speaking has now come to inventing words. I hope I can speak when I return home.

“I am... made curious... by the dayglue,” I say. “It’s strange to me - now that I’ve felt it - to think on how it has been made over the years and how its effects are achieved.”

“Oh, little Service,” he smiles. “You have said too much. I hoped it would be you, that you would come down, but I did not expect you to say so much.”

A chill resonates deep in my core. I can feel a nagging doubt. I know that servants are supposed to stay anonymous, and I wonder what the consequences will be for being discovered. What’s the harm? This must happen all the time, particularly for palace-folk.

Not many people from the palace are sentenced to serve, though.

“Do we have a problem?” I ask.

“No!” The toadmaster replies. “Not at all. Anything but. Your father and I are old friends. Old friends. His first wife is my sister. Was. Is. She’s still my sister.”

He stops, finger pointing up in protest.

“Let’s take a look at those worms, shall we?” He smiles. “The glue can wait for later.”

Next Chapter: Chapter 7