MARROW: CHAPTER EIGHT, SCENE ONE
SECTION TWO: THE HALL OF ONE HUNDRED PETALS
In the Fifth Era of the Paltran Emperors
Late Winter of Year Forty-Three
Winter of Year Forty-Four
WHEN DID YOU MEET MARTERE MAJ SUTKI?
The Twenty-Seventh Day of Spring, Year Forty-Four of the Fifth Era of Paltran Emperors
BY THE time our examinations ended for the day, it was almost dark. The uzņika who, like me, had been given a yellow seal were ushered away and brought to a garden within the Inner Court near a long, two-storied building I didn’t recognise.
One by one, the other uzņika’s guardians came and led them away until I stood in the garden alone. My muscles ached from our last and most rigorous performance — a rapid dance dedicated to the Five Divine Humours — so I leaned against a low wall, glad for the sliver of solitude I’d been given. I waited until the moons had begun to creep over the horizon for Pashzak or Laude to retrieve me, but they were nowhere to be found. I hadn’t the faintest idea of where I was or if roaming the Inner Court in search of my quarters would attract too much attention. My instincts offered a resounding “Yes.” But, the longer I leaned and the weaker my knees, the more attractive an option it became. When my stomach finally grumbled loudly enough to cajole me into action, I picked a path that wound in a northeasterly direction and began walking.
I wandered through a large garden filled with many different tiny, budding trees. The air was warming up, but still chilly enough that I walked with my arms crossed, hands rubbing up and down my lower arms. A stream split the garden just up ahead; connecting either bank was an arched stone bridge which looked older than I cared to trust to bear my weight. Still, beyond it, I thought I could see a gaggle of familiar buildings. If I could reach them, I might find home.
Home. The word echoed in my mind. I may have been staying in the Hall of One Hundred Petals, but it was not my home. Home was far from here in a distant land, but even I wasn’t sure anymore whether that was in Rahvesk with my family or Limhoriò with my launnal.
Still: perhaps Old Brisia could have come to have been my home, one day.
The trees and bushes thickened, ringed by beds of bright early spring flowers as far as I could see. The path took a sudden turn. Nothing ahead seemed familiar. Sighing, I turned back the way I came. Only a hundred or so steps before the bridge, a woman clad entirely in green trotted up the path toward me, followed by four harried maids. One of them called to me, “Serkana? Serkana! Excuse me, Serkana?”
I looked behind me. No one was there. So, I stopped and waited for her to come to me. The maid arrived, breathless and sweating.
“My lady wishes to speak with you, Serkana,” the maid coughed out.
“Your lady? Is she also an uzņika?” I asked.
The maid’s eyes bugged out. “You’re an uzņika?”
As I replied, “Yes,” the green woman drew nearer. Her coif and headdress dripped with peridots and emeralds—or glass replicas, if she was a frugal woman. More green stones and gems cascaded down her neck on chains of polished gold, clacking against a broad collar inlaid with yet more gemstones and tiny metal mirrors. Beneath it, the green woman wore a grassy dalmatic and stola with virid, supple slippers, all embroidered with vines. Once close enough to me to not need to raise her voice, she asked, “Who are you?”
I flashed my palms at her and bent at the knees just a touch, greeting her as one greeted someone whose rank was unfamiliar. “Lady Dahlia of—”
“Lady?” She looked me up and down, then scoffed. “An uzņika. But of course it is an uzņika.”
The green woman nodded at her maid, who, fright scrawled across her face, frantically shook her head. Sighing, the green woman nodded to another of her maids, who grabbed me by my shoulders and gently forced me along the path.
I tore away from her. “Do not ever presume to touch me. Who are you?”
“A little tip for the uzņika,” the green woman said, but not to me—instead, she spoke to her maids. “This area is strictly reserved for the Grand Duke’s chosen consorts. We have no need for its kind stinking up the place. If I catch it around here again, I shall each of you strike it ten times. Perhaps it shall learn its lesson then.”
I opened my mouth to rebuke her; she guffawed, continuing, “Oh, no. It misunderstands. It is I who outranks it. The audacity to interrupt my evening walk in the gardens of my own home after it has been slithering about like a thief as if it can go wherever it wishes. Lady Dahlia? I shall remember to tell Her Majesty all about Lady—”
She glanced behind me, paling as her green eyes widened to the fullness of the moons. Immediately, she and her maids fell to their knees and bowed deeply, foreheads to the mossy ground and arms outstretched above their heads.
I turned. An autumn-haired woman not much older than me and certainly younger than the consort had silently approached us from behind with just one maid in tow. Her pastel pink-and-yellow costume billowed around her in the soft Spring wind. I began to follow the consort’s example, but the new woman motioned for me to stay standing as I lowered myself.
Addressing the consort, the new woman said, “You may return to your bedroom. Your bedroom. Not the sitting room, or the gardens, or the kitchen. How dare you treat our esteemed guest so disrespectfully? Perish the thought that I should see you outside the Hall of Sweet Fruits again on this day. Rise and take your leave.”
“Of course, Your Highness,” the consort and her maids said. Standing with their help, the consort scurried away like a mother mouse and her babies, not looking back even once. When she was gone, the new woman turned to me.
“Lady Dahlia, I heard it was? My deepest apologies for Peridot’s atrocious behaviour. Please be assured it shall not happen again.”
I flashed my palms to her and lowered myself a little. “You have my thanks—” I caught myself before uttering Serkana, as the shock in Peridot’s eyes and the way she kowtowed to her made it clear this woman far outranked any mere Serkana. It went without saying as well that she was not an uzņika.
The woman smiled. My chest tightened. I had only seen such a gorgeous visage on the statues at the Butterfly House gardens. “I shall spare you my full lineage,” she said. “My husband is the important part, or so everyone tells me. I am Grand Duchess Martere Maj Sutki Maj Impozars, wife of Grand Duke Tavars Maj Paltra Maj Impozars, future Emperor of the Brisian Empire.” Gesturing at her maid, the Duchess added, “and this is my Head Maid, Inga.”
I gaped, moving without thinking to bow to Her Grace as I had been taught during my etiquette lessons, but she gently caught my arm and pulled me upright again.
“Please. Save the pageantry for your judges. Divine Ancestor knows their numbers are in excess these days.”
“As you wish, Your Grace.” I swallowed, heart pounding. “I apologise for wandering. My guardian and eunuch seem to have disappeared, and I’m uncertain as to where my accommodations are.”
She tilted her head. “To which residence were you assigned?”
I drew shallow breaths as a ringlet of auburn hair fell across her cheek, a streak of red against sea-grey skin. “The Hall of One Hundred Petals,” I stammered out.
“Please, allow me to escort you there. My agenda for this evening is light, anyway.”
“If it pleases Your Grace, but I admit I’m a poor companion for a stroll.”
“Nonsense.” She took my arm and locked our elbows. Lightning bolted through me straight down to my toes. We walked arm and arm out of the garden and deeper into the Inner Court, Inga trailing behind us just out of earshot. “Just by looking at you I know that you are not like the others,” the Duchess said. “Your clothes are very stylish, certainly, but your nose and lips are pierced and your hair is cropped beneath your cap…you look rather nothing at all like the other uzņika I know. I suspect your personality is equally interesting.”
Our hips bumped a few times until we found our rhythm. Each knock sent a bolt through my chest. I couldn’t tell if it was panic, worry, or nerves, but I found myself at a loss for words.
“So where were you trained?” the Duchess asked.
“Limhoriò, Örös, at the Limhoriò House of Butterflies.”
“Oh? What was it like there?”
I thought for a moment. “Warm. Fair-weathered. The parts I knew of it were quite colourful, but we were never allowed outside the launnal unless we had a very good reason, and if ever we travelled we always left by the light of the moons.”
“You grew up elsewhere?”
I nodded. “Rahvesk, in Kandrisev.”
“Oh? So how did you come to end up in Örös?”
My heartbeats quickened. For some reason, I couldn’t bear the thought of repeating my lie to the court astrologer, but I couldn’t very well tell her the truth of things. “When the war came to Rahvesk, I was taken to an orphanage in Nilova, Nezhlovyad. Serkun Artis Maj Melidi adopted me and brought me to Örös once he learned of my talents, where I lived from the age of eleven.”
Her expression was genuinely harrowed. “Oh, my most heartfelt sympathies, Lady Dahlia. How terrible for you and your family. I never thought of Serkun Artis as a man to offer refuge to orphans, but his generosity pleases me. I will make certain my husband knows of his good deed.”
We carried on arm in arm toward another garden—one that was wholly unfamiliar and immense. At its centre stood an enormous peach tree larger than I though possible for a peach tree to grow. The nearer we drew, the more butterflies surrounded us; butterflies in early spring. They seemed to love the Duchess. Tens of them landed on her as if to welcome her back with a kiss before fluttering off again.
The Duchess spoke up again. Her voice was high as were her cheekbones, and her chin pointed as her words. “Now, I have long desired to travel to Örös, but my chances always escape me. Is it fashionable for Örösi uzņika to take piercings and crop their hair?”
“Not at all. I did so to honour my Candrish roots.”
“Oh? So they hold meaning?” Attentiveness underlined her every word.
I pointed to the thin bronze ring which pierced my septum. “This for talent with Essence, the breath of life.” Next, to the stud of the same metal in the divot above my upper lip. “Since I cannot marry, I took the chastity pin. The one on my tongue is taken by performers of my clan to show the strength of their words cannot be stifled by pain.”
“Oh, how fascinating,” she breathed, but not like Branas Nieklins had, nor so many others I’d met at the launnal. Her words were genuine and full of wonder, as if I had gifted her with greatest knowledge. “And your hair? Is that common for performers as well?”
I chuckled. “I warn you now the reason is grim, but most women of my clan wear their hair cropped. It makes it more difficult for an enemy to grab you by it in battle.”
Concern consumed her face. “Battle? Do Rahveski women often go to war?’
I drew as far back on my knowledge and learnings as I could go. “Rahvi women indeed see more battle than our men. As it happens, our Chobortsriya—Keeper, I suppose, or perhaps our Matriarch—is always the woman of greatest martial prowess. Titles are won, not inherited.” I looked at her. “But what of you? Where are you from?”
“Me?” The Duchess almost looked surprised. “I—well, I hail from Maj Sutki, bordered to the west by Baugar Sound and to the east by old forests which fade into the Great Marsh...there are certainly more interesting provinces.”
“Perhaps you’re just too used to it,” I offered.
She smiled. “Yes, perhaps.”
We traipsed around the butterfly gardens on clean-swept stone paths which wove between trimmed hedges and short tress, past tidy flowerbeds and shallow ponds, trading tales of our pasts as we navigated our manicured jungle. I told her of the Butterfly Holuse and my sisters in training. She talked of her youth in Varbas, the seat of her province, and that she was selected to marry the Duke when she was only sixteen years old. Stories of our old lives and future dreams passed between our lips. We talked as if we were already the oldest and closest of friends. Not a single word went unheard nor misunderstood. For the first time since my arrival in Maj Impozars, I no longer struggled to remember bliss. With the Duchess, I was happy.
When, at last, we stopped, it was to rest beneath the peach tree on one of the ornamented benches that ringed its gnarled trunk. We sat, arms still locked. The Duchess’ smooth expression was quickly overtaken by worry. She withdrew her arm, studying me with utmost intensity.
“Forgive me, Lady Dahlia,” she said, eyes searching mine for something I couldn’t name. “But not once have you asked about Her Majesty or my husband.”
I stiffened. “Was I meant to, Your Grace? If so, please forgive my offence.”
She wore a look of equal parts fear and relief, hesitating as she spoke. “On most strolls with palace guests, all they care to hear about is Her Majesty. When they tire of that, they invariably ask me about His Grace. Then, they want to know about what gossip has reached my ears. What so-and-so-eats. Who such-and-such wears. Where he-and-she take their luncheon.” She glanced up into the branches of the tree. Burgeoning moonlight caught in her pale green eyes.
Their crystalline grace mesmerised me. I studied her as she had studied me. Her lips were painted Imperial Blue; her eyelids lined with jūdra and kohl. Not a single flaw marred her stormy-blue skin. A cluster of pearls that mimicked the triplet moons hung from the lobes of her upturned ears. Gooseflesh spread across my thighs. She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen—even more beautiful than Rutgita and more terribly out of reach than Viscaria.
Briefly, her eyes welled with tears. “But I suppose this all has to do with your being an uzņika. It is your profession to make me feel so…” her words trailed off. “My apologies, Lady Dahlia. It was selfish of me to keep you from your residence for this long. Please, allow me to take you home.”
Without thinking, I offered her my hand. Surprised by my own candor, I asked, “May I?”
She took it, rising, and I rose with her. I held her in place, jellified by the warmth of her skin. “I am an uzņika. That much is true. It is my trade to make others feel welcome, but an uzņika is not all that I am just as you are more than the Grand Duchess or the Grand Duke’s wife or Her Majesty’s daughter-by-law. We are made of immeasurable fractals, you and I, no matter what the others might say. Trust me, Your Grace: if I had not found you as interesting as you seem to have found me, I would have asked to return to my room long ago.”
Tears slid down her cheeks. She wiped them dry with a blue handkerchief pulled from her sleeve. Her words shuddered. “Please forgive my tears. I know I have no cause for sorrow and it is unseemly to weep before a stranger. Oh, I must look hysterical. It sounds so silly—we’ve only just met, but no words can do justice to how…” she covered her mouth as if to hold in her words. “Thank you, Lady Dahlia,” she said after a moment. “I appreciate your open-heartedness. Come; I shall return you to your residence now.”
We left the butterfly garden as we came, Inga still trailing behind, our conversation much lighter than before. By the time we arrived on the front stoop of the Hall of One Hundred Petals, the moons were nearly at their zenith.
“Lady Dahlia, if I may say one more thing?” the Duchess asked.
“Many candidates for Uzņika Impozars have passed through this court. None that I have spoken to—and I have spoken to scores—have come close to showing me the courtesy and understanding that you have tonight. Of every uzņika in this Hall, Lady Dahlia, you are the one I pray shall receive Her Majesty’s blessing.” She stepped forward. “And no matter what happens, if I may dare to ask this of you, it is my earnest hope that we shall remain good friends as long as the Divine Sister wills it.”
Warmth flooded me. I hung onto her every word. We clasped hands.
“I can think of no greater pleasure,” I told her. “You have my word and my friendship, now and for as long as the Divine Sister wills it.”
We parted for the night. As I went to my room, thoughts of our conversation swirled about in my head. I wanted to relive and remember every moment of it, to savour every note of her melodic voice and eloquent word of her mind, every touch-memory of the warmth and softness of her skin. Frankly, I had no idea what had come over me. The strangeness of it all left me feeling heart-sick and torn. She was the Grand Duchess, after all. Why would she possibly want to be friends with me?
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