Flowstone thumbed the edges of the House amulet in his hands. Just a few years of wear and washing had done a job on the varnish. The paint beneath was beginning to fade away. Thin lines of packed-in grime added a darker-than-oxidation shadow around the mushroom-shaped icon stamped into the center.
"I've been mucking out mushroom trays since I graduated from the Institute five years ago," the young troll began earnestly. He shrugged, twisting his lips awkwardly around the words he was about to say. "If I'd tested higher, I might have gotten an apprenticeship in the mid-tier of the House. I s'pse I can't fault the testmakers, though! I never was much of a student. Truth be told I had... other interests... taking up my time. I'm not asking for no special favors from life. I did what I did, and I didn’t do what I didn’t do. I just never expected to be raking sludge the rest of my life." His hands fell to his lap as he looked up to his hostess. A low sigh left him. "I come home after every End Bell still smelling of the rot."
"I've heard this story so many times," Quartz said from her corner of the table. She was sitting against the closer end of a reclining couch made of the same rich, plushly-stuffed leather as the chair he had been offered. One of her plump hips had been pressed against the arm as she leaned into it take in his words. Her sympathetic smile gave him hope. Here was a high-ranking troll who would listen to his woes. She had sought him out for that very purpose, in fact. This was her office they were sitting in, at the Institute, the center of learning all young trolls attended before moving into their Houses. "Each time it makes me just as sad. Why should one little test determine who you are for the rest of your life? Your future wife's? Your children?” The female's bejangled hands pushed away from the armrest. “Of course, there are always means for one in your position to work on up the ladder. But if your superiors on the farm were going to grant you one, you wouldn’t be here talking to me. Would you?"
As she spoke, she slowly poured a glass of wine from a filigreed decanter. The twenty-five year old lad couldn’t help but notice the delicious curvature of her arm. She slid the cup out to him, pushing from the weighted base. He took hold with both hands and savored it. It tasted better than anything he'd had in a long time. Sweet and smooth, it warmed him to the core. If he could make a guess, it was blueberry. As his body relaxed, it sank deeper into the intoxicatingly comfortable couch.
"You seem to have made out better for it," he said after a moment. Immediately, his posture shot back to its prior formalness. He wanted to beg her forgiveness, blame his loose mouth on the drink. His eyes were wide with shame.
She rolled her own at the comment, but not at him for making it. "Oh, high rank comes with its costs, know that. You are overlooked by most of the eyes up top. I'm hemmed in by them. But what are we to do about it?" She shrugged, sending a wave of motion through the bulbous amber pendant nested delightfully above her equally pendulous —
"Eyes up top, friend!" Quartz snickered with a wagging finger, "I don’t mix business and that pleasure. Oh-ho, but I could help you seek it!" Her eyes twinkled, index fingers tapping together. "I can get you soft bed sheets. A polished mirror to pretty yourself by. Perfumed soap." The female troll reached a hand out towards him, with lowered fingers. Accepting the invitation, Flowstone leaned in and took a whiff. Fresh moonmoss oil! The aroma sent his nose tingling, and his mind dancing far away from the filth he had trod upon this very day. To a place where he wanted to stay.
"What do you ask of me in return?"
"Oh, very little, really. And I wouldn’t need to call on you very often. Let's just say my line of work as a procurement agent extends past my official duties to the Institute. From time to time I need a package moved from here to there," She pantomimed the transfer. Her voice dropped in octave and volume when she continued, "quietly. And with no questions asked."
"Through places where too many eyes would be looking at you?" he asked, knowingly.
"And overlooking you," she answered, her smile now a conspiratorial smirk. "Do your part, and some of those packages will be for yourself."
There was no doubting now what kind of arrangement this was. And he'd be in a world of hurt if he was found out. But what did that matter? No matter how many times he’d volunteered for more responsibilities, put his name in for a promotion or transfer, his superiors always seemed to have a reason why it wasn’t the right time to allow that. Another shorthanded harvest coming up. Another soil rotation. Another pestilence sweep. Another excuse to pass him over, just as Quartz had said. What good was loyalty to those who would never let him grasp any of what this one female was offering? With more conviction than he had felt about anything for some time, he told her, "I'm your troll."
"Splendid! We have many mutually beneficial days ahead of us I'm sure!" Flowstone's new employer reached for the decanter. "More wine?"