As day was to frigid, treacherous night, so was the young cultivator to his employer.
'What kept you?'
The manager of the amphibian emporium scowled raucously when the young man - he could hardly be called a man; Yulian was a boy smooth-chinned and still chaste - appeared moments after he was clicked for. Taking him by the elbow, the manager hauled him forward and deposited him before their prospective patron. The young cultivator kept his feet and arranged himself appropriately before the customer, bending his spine deeply on seeing the tall hat, gold-tipped cane, and refined expression of a high-born gentleman.
'You're to tour our guest around the tanks,' the manager ordered with a leer before turning to his customer with a far more respectful smile. 'Any questions you have as to our wares or the rudiments of our trade, Gospodin Vasin, Yulian can answer.'
Though made nervous by his rank, Yulian addressed the stately customer properly as the manager returned to the shopfront, leaving the two alone.
'If you would kindly follow me, Gospodin.'
'You are a junior cultivator here?' Gospodin Vasin asked as Yulian led him beneath the emporium. The air quickly grew cool. A few lanterns flickered carefully-dimmed light that reflected off numerous polliwog and frog tanks, all arranged in orderly, tabular fashion. Quiet croaks were the only sound down there, apart from their own voices, footsteps, and intermittent soft splashes.
'I am the only cultivator, Gospodin,' Yulian informed him, ducking his head with timid pride as Gospodin Vasin read the labels on each tank. From polliwog to fully-grown, they were arranged in rows: anaesthetic, analgesic, sedative, antipyretic, antitoxin, and analeptic.
'Your training must have been extensive,' Gospodin Vasin commented, examining a tank of week-old polliwogs. They swam about contentedly, butting their growing heads and wriggling their tails as they raced. 'I've not seen polliwogs perkier than these.'
'You've seen many polliwogs, Gospodin?' Yulian asked in mild surprise. Most of their customers were pharmacists and physicians. They purchased the amphibians' medicinal secretions by the bucket load, but most had never even seen a frog, save for tiny black hoppers that took over the gutters in heavy rain. Those pests caused many of the diseases their carefully-bred frogs were employed to ease.
'I know enough to now understand why I was hired,' Gospodin Vasin replied, beckoning Yulian forward. Given the height of his hat and the glint of his cane, Yulian had been sure the gospodin was his own manager. Puzzled, the young cultivator joined him by a tank of mature frogs currently secreting anaesthetic.
'My employer's wares have been made redundant, you see. All his customers have found better elsewhere. He owns such a respectable emporium. Imagine his chagrin on learning it was not a bigger, more reputable shop that claimed his patrons, but this dingy little dump enjoying an unlikely windfall of prosperity. This luck, I envisage, began when you were hired.'
'I ... have an affinity with amphibians, Gospodin,' Yulian trod carefully, unsure where Gospodin Vasin headed with his talk. But the young cultivator's skin crawled at the gentleman's tone; the slimy texture of his frogs had never caused him to even twitch. 'They like my being nearby.'
'Is that so?' Gospodin Vasin said softly, hearing clearly as frogs began to croak more cheerily with Yulian's close proximity.
Yulian's throat dried out. He swallowed, eyes darting to the door. It was all the way across the underground room and up the long, steep stairs.
'Do you have any questions for me, Gospodin?'
'No,' the gentleman replied, examining a frog ventured to the top of the open tank, apparently absorbed. Yulian's shoulders slumped in relief, his speeding heart slowed.
Then there was a splash. All of a sudden, Yulian had a frog halfway down his throat.
'At first, my employer believed he must modify how he grooms his cultivators in order to compete with you,' Gospodin Vasin said as he struck Yulian hard with his cane, forcing him to the cement and squeezing the frog tight in his fist, undiluted anaesthetic oozing from its pores down the hapless cultivator's throat. 'That approach did not yield satisfactory results. Now he believes he must modify how he acquires his cultivators.'
Choking on the thick, bitter sludge and the thrashing amphibian, Yulian lost all feeling in his limbs before he could resist more than seconds. Colours waltzed gaily before his blurring eyes before he lost sense to darkness, entirely unaware as Gospodin Vasin hefted him, as limp and heavy as a flour sack, over his shoulder.
Moving purposefully, the abductor knocked through a boarded-up doorway behind a supplies shelf and spirited Yulian through a centuries-old passage to a waiting car by the building across. He threw the senseless boy into the backseat and locked the door.