MARROW: CHAPTER FIVE, SCENE ONE
SECTION ONE: THE BUTTERFLY HOUSE
In the Fifth Era of the Paltran Emperors
AND WHEN DID YOU DEPART?
The Ninth Day of Winter, Year Forty-Three of the Fifth Era of Paltran Emperors
I DID not see the Chobortsriya again until the day I turned nineteen. Still, her face was unknown to me. That day, she wore a muted grey veil and shapeless stola. If I saw her on the street, I wouldn’t notice her alongside most other Örösi women that passed me by except perhaps that she dressed more conservatively.
We met in Artis's study; this time under the pretense of gathering my records, savings, and other documentation before I left for the Collegium. While I took my examinations, their Ministers would verify and cross-reference each and every scroll. Everything had to match. While the Chobortsriya and Artis bickered over how precisely to word my acceptance of the Empress’ invitation in the event I did become an uzņika that evening, I sat in a chair off to the side, wringing my hands until they were pale and raw. The two of them had been arguing for what felt like a century; turning the same points over and over and over again until the words didn’t sound real to me anymore.
I had so many other, more important things to be doing: practicing, for one, making sure my costume was in perfect condition, styling my hair, receiving blessings from Ladies Pearl and Amethyst, not to mention Ladies Viscaria and Hawthorn, who succeeded in becoming uzņika last summer. Not only that, but I had to arrive early, find the correct examination room, and get properly dressed all before the Collegium Examiner arrived.
“‘Lady Juniper’ sounds utterly puerile,” the Chobortsriya sniped loud enough to break my inner monologue. “How many others do you know using the same name? Ten? Twelve? It’s not memorable enough.”
“It is traditional for an uzņika in Maj Melidi to carry the name she was given as an aizņika into her professional life,” Artis tersely replied. “If she is to appear to have Majai Toltonovas’ patronage, it makes sense for her to adopt Melidan traditions. Besides, if she changes it, no one will recognise her — including the Collegium. There have been six Lady Laurels in Örös as far as I can tell, two of whom are still practicing: one as an aizņika in Prusi and one on the other side of the island. Changing her records now might confuse the Collegium and draw far more attention than necessary.”
“My apologies, Patriarch Melidi. Why, I had not the faintest idea you clung so dearly to the rules of Law and Tradition! My most careless mistake. I will see myself off to Kandrisev at once.”
A depth of rage unlike Artis had ever let show before filled his eyes. But, he kept his voice quiet and even. “I suppose the Collegium will have to accept that her patron wishes for her to follow unorthodox traditions. How very benevolent of him.”
“Indeed,” the Chobortsriya said. She turned to me. “Well? What say you?”
I swallowed. “A-about what?”
“The name ‘Lady Laurels.’ It will serve as a… reminder of our pact. Laurels are precious to me; being an uzņika is precious to you. Don’t you like it better than ‘Lady Juniper?’” She said in a mocking tone.
I swallowed. “If it’s important to you I suppose I could get used to it, but if…well…” The Chobortsriya watched me with interest.
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “Something about it seems a little… if there are two other girls named ‘Laurels’ in Örös, how many more might be in the mainland? The Empress’ banners show a swamp flower encircled by a wreath of laurels. I’d think a lot of girls would want something that harkens back to that if they want to attract her attention.”
She sat in silence for a few moments. I sank into the chair, certain she was staring me down from within the folds of her cloak deciding which methods of torture to visit upon me before dumping my body in the Abyss.
“What do you propose instead?” She asked.
I turned over a million names in my mind. I didn’t dare say Marrow. Artis would skin me alive. Lady Juniper. That was simplest, though it drew us right back to square one. Lady Laurels just… didn’t sit right with me. I could have picked Alyssum in honour of her, but doing so without Viscaria and Hawthorn’s permission seemed to overstep my bounds. What else?
“Lady Dahlia,” I said to no immediate reaction.
“Do you know any uzņika who go by Lady Dahlia?” The Chobortsriya flatly asked Artis.
He fiddled with his reed pen. “Not to my knowledge, no.”
“Very good. We’ll go with Dahlia.”
His stylus scratched across the vellum laid out on his desk. “‘Lady Dahlia of the Limhoriò House of Butterflies,’” he said as he wrote, “is pleased to accept the invitation of Dowager Empress Ozelyga Petrys Sukilnus Klauds Marzrēvius Glaunys Sarybās Jōzens Ottovian Maj Paltra Maj Impozars and attend the Imperial Examinations for Uzņika Impozars, Serkunas, Maj, Brisia, and Zmaulis. She does so with the permission of her father, Serkun Artis Petraulas Domis Vītolus Glaunys Gitas Salitus Rutkainas Valtorandys Maj Melidi and the knowing consent of her patron, Serkun Agbardas Rinthards Tangor Silvings Munvars Jerzins Majai Toltonovas, all undersigned.’”
“Excellent.” I stood much faster than intended. “Now, I really need to return to the launnal if I may. I have a lot to prepare for and I really want to talk to Viscaria before my examinations this evening — she’s coming back from her competition in Prusi tomorrow and I haven’t seen her in weeks.”
“You didn’t tell her?” The Chobortsriya’s attention snapped to Artis.
My heart skipped a beat. “Tell me what?”
Artis remained silent.
Frozen in place, I watched him. A lump rose in my throat.
“A Minister of Licensure will be by shortly to fill the necessary documents and record that you were titled uzņika today,” the Chobortsriya said. “I need you now more than ever. We can’t risk missing this opportunity because of the worthless pedantics of some puffed-up fool’s dreary artistic assessments.”
My heart was a rabbit’s foot, thumping, thumping, thumping against my ribcage with such ferocity I was sure it could be heard by everyone in the villa.
After a heavy sigh, Artis spoke. “The invitation came earlier than expected. We’ll arrive in Maj Impozars the very day examinations begin. Not only that, but I had to pull a few strings and trade in many old favours to my brother — the Imperial Procurate, no less — to allow invitations from suzerainty launnals in the first place. The Imperial Court was going to refuse such invitees entirely this session; no fewer than three hundred mainland uzņika will already be in attendance.”
“But— ” My voice was small and quiet.
He gave me a stern look. “To get there in time, we must embark at once. I’ve had my slaves at the launnal gathering up your belongings while we’ve been discussing things here. We’ll get all your records in order today and you will sleep here for the night. At dawn, we set sail.”
Without considering how it might look, I turned heel and opened the door, letting it drift shut behind me as my feet carried me toward the courtyard to think. I wouldn’t get to say goodbye to Viscaria. Nor Hawthorn, nor Ladies Pearl and Amethyst, nor any of my tutors. Gilgorys wasn’t even at the launnal today. He’d been given a few days’ respite while the weather was still mild to venture into the city. Neither he nor Viscaria would know where I went until I was already adrift on the Bluedark Abyss.
I’d never walk the launnal gardens again. All the statues there would fade into charcoal marks and memory. My mind flit to thoughts of Alyssum. Viscaria had already lost one sister. This was but a scrap of the grief she must have felt in not even getting to say goodbye, but here that same denial arose again to haunt her — and me.
I passed slaves and others in the corridor. None of them acknowledged my presence. When I entered the courtyard, I found a bushy evergreen and sat beneath it, legs folded up and posture slouched in as un-ladylike a fashion as I could muster. What had it all been for? The gruelling year of agony I’d spent trying my hardest not only to be good enough, but the best? My breaths were deep, shuddering. I had many trials yet to come on my arrival in Maj Impozars, but there had always been a chance I'd never have gotten that far. The Collegium had every right to reject me. Nineteen was young for an uzņika and I wasn’t even nineteen to begin with. In the back of my mind, there had always been a chance that I could have become an uzņika without becoming a spy.
I had the whole year after meeting the Chobortsriya to meet new House guests and deepen my relationships with those who had already taken an interest in me. Contracts of patronage were not eternal. Most only lasted five years, after which they required renewal. If our deal fell through, I had two potential patrons to fall back on: Glaunas Aimaj Voignovus, who had finally managed to find his voice and offer me patronage if I agreed to move with him to his research post in Rendroxja, and Marzrēvius Aimaj Novēgas, a retired Imperial admiral who had taken up sculpture himself. Of course, I’d told them I already had a contract in hand, but they were my way out.
I buried my head in my knees. All I had needed was more time.
Ten years had been docked off my lifespan from all the pressure exerted on me to succeed. I felt ages older than my years. Now, I didn’t even get the luxury of release — in fact, the pressure had only increased. The Collegium didn’t bend the rules for anyone. Not ever. Bribes had to have been offered somewhere along the line. Probably more than one, since there were more Ministers involved in licensing an uzņika than the Chief Examiner alone. I never consented to be involved in bribery or fraud — and if I became an uzņika this way, that’s what I was. A fraud. The entire tradition was devalued if Artists’ Collegiums could be bought. All that work, all that time, all my misery: worthless. Utterly worthless.
And now I was being shipped off to Maj Impozars with no warning given to myself or others. If no one else, I just wanted to speak to Viscaria one last time. I owed everything I had to her. My life. My skill. My ability to endure. The thought of leaving her behind railed against me as if I’d torn out my heart and left it behind to rot.
Viscaria inspired me. She was my inspiration. I resolved to stay at the launnal precisely because I wanted to be like her. She was the most mesmerizing thing I’d ever seen. My stars, how she turned and spun and dipped and paused, how stoic and graceful and poised, how disciplined and dedicated; how her skill grew more potent as she aged. Divine Artist be my witness, seeing her every day motivated me to pull through my terror and succeed. The idea that I may only ever see her again in dreams absolutely shattered me.
Worse, I was stealing this chance from her. If anyone from our launnal deserved to be sent to Maj Impozars, it was her. She had the talent. She had the desire. Not me. Lady Amethyst pounded it into our heads at every opportunity that the length of time it took to become living art was never the point. A good uzņika was a patient uzņika: one that fully embodied their art, not just practised it. I could think of no other woman more befitting of that description. I stared at the ground. Ants crawled around in the moss. One wandered up my ankle. I let it creep about, flicking it off when it ventured too close to my knee. I regretted it at once.
A shadow cast over me. I looked up. Standing over me was the same autumn-eyed blackblood man I’d crowned at Artis's party — Pashzak.
“Hello?” He asked in Brisian through an extremely thick Candrish accent. “Why are you out here?”
I glanced at the scroll case strapped to his chest. He wore a short, muted-green tunic and sandals — hardly the garb of an Upperbirth, as I once assumed he was. “What are you?” I asked. “A courier?”
He sat beside me. “Agbardas Toltonovas asked me to deliver Juniper to Artis. Are you aware of him? You do not look like these uzn’yika I hear of.”
“I’m one of his nezhdoya.” When I said it that way, it sounded much more unsavoury.
He looked surprised. “But you sound Brisian.”
“And you sound Candrish.” I stood and dusted the dirt off my skirts. “I suppose the Lady taught me well.”
I paused. Ayryi was a word I hadn’t heard for years. “You mean Serkana Rutgita? No. Lady Pearl; the proprietress of the Butterfly House north of here. She taught me High Brisian.”
“Oh.” He unfurled the scroll. “In any case, here are my orders if you do not believe I was sent to find you. My name is Pashzak. With Juniper, I am told, I will set sail for Mazh Impozars.”
“Well, you’ve found Lady Dahlia, not Juniper, so I suppose you’ll not be paid. I’d offer recompense, but I’m afraid my father has locked my own wealth away from me.”
Pashzak frowned. “It says right here: I must find Juniper, who once crowned me at Artis's party, so we may go to Mazh Impozars. In Vrisya, Upperbirths are sneaky and uzn’yika are wise to seek bodyguards. where I will protect her from sneaky Upperbirths and other nasty folk.”
I squinted at him. “Are you… mocking me?”
He chortled. “Mocking? No. I do admit you seem to need cheering up, but what I say is true.”
“I thought you said you were a courier.”
“I neither confirmed nor denied this; you assumed. Nevertheless, we must return to Agbardas Toltonovas and Artis Melidi. Your Minister is here for you.” Pashzak offered me the vellum. “If you think I lie, it is written here. Can you read?”
“Of course.” I snatched the orders and held them out. Strange characters snaked across the page: definitely not Brisian of any variety, nor did it resemble the Örösi or Candrish scripts. I blinked at him. “This is gibberish.”
“Oh. Well, you said you could read.”
I pursed my lips. Pashzak winked and took back the scroll.
“I do not blame you for it. This is Solkan. Locals pitched a fit when your Empire annexed their island. Language destroyed, letters preserved yet given Brisian sound. Long, fascinating story.
Thankfully we have time to discuss during our voyage.” He glanced at me. “You can walk, yes?” With a terse smile, I gestured for him to lead the way.
When we reached Artis's study, Pashzak jumped in front of the door as I reached out to knock. “Should I not do that? You know, so your knuckles will not bruise.”
“I’m not a piece of fruit,” I snapped before pounding on the door.
“No, my Lady, but you are sweet as one.”
Artis opened the door for us. An unfamiliar man sat where the Chobortsriya had; no trace of her presence was left. Artis began speaking at once.
“This is Lady Dahlia and her Patron, Serkun Agbardas Majai Toltonovas. I am happy to serve as a witness to her licensing.”
“Yes, yes, of course,” the Minister said in a thin, bored voice. He didn’t bother looking up from his slumped position over the desk. “The papers will be over there.” He flailed his hand at a small side table situated to the left of Artis's desk. “Each of you will cut your palm, spread your blood across it, and imprint the page, signing underneath. Once that’s over with, I’ll take your donation to my office and be on my way. I’ll paste the papers into the proper codex on my return. Your daughter will officially be an uzņika no later than suppertime.”
Pashzak and I followed Artis to the table, where he stood behind us in a way that blocked the Minister’s view of Pashzak. Pointing at an ivory-handled knife laid near the papers, Artis said, “Ladies first.”
I grabbed the knife and swiftly cut my hand before my self-disgust overwhelmed my audacity. Black blood bloomed from the crevice made in my iron-grey skin. I smeared it around my hand and pressed it onto the page marked uzņika.
There. I had no choice now. No way out. I couldn’t very well run back to the launnal and beg Glaunas Aimaj Voignovus or Marzrēvius Aimaj Novēgas to extend an offer and save me. If I dared breathe a word of what transpired in this room, I would take the blame. Not Artis. He had enough money to convince even the Collegium to overlook custom and the law. A judge would be even more easily bought.
I watched Artis wipe the blade with a black cloth before slitting his own palm. I hoped it burned and festered. He imprinted the pages witness and patron with rich blue blood.
“There we are,” he announced when the deed was done. “Örös has gained a new uzņika. As for you, good Minister, I must thank you for how simple you made this process. It would be rude of me to not offer a tip in addition to the generous donation I’ve made to your institution. Is five thousand maugat agreeable to you?”
“Very,” the Minister replied with a vulpine grin.
“Then let us settle that account while you’re here. Lady Dahlia? Serkun Agbardas? I imagine you’re feeling peckish. I think it wise for you to retire for luncheon. We’ll reassemble this evening to discuss our itinerary.”
I flashed my palms at him and made my way out of his office, ignoring Pashzak’s call to slow down for him. This meeting had already humiliated me enough. Neither of them needed to see my tears.
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