MARROW: CHAPTER FIVE, SCENE THREE
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
BEFORE I left for Artis's study, I gave myself a final glance-over to make sure my new look had the intended effect. The Chobortsriya had left two beautiful formal gowns made in Central Kandrisev in my makeshift bedroom; I donned one, a rust-orange affair with lush black trim and gently puffed sleeves, with utmost glee. No more perfect gift could have been left.
Back straight, chin high, chest an uproarious nest of wasps, I confidently strode into Artis's study without bothering to knock.
He fiddled with something in the cabinets behind his desk, turned away from the door. “Ah, Lady Dahlia. You’re fashionably late.”
When the Chobortsriya, who sat in the same chair she always did, looked up and saw me, she gasped. Paszhak jumped up, eyes wide and mouth hung open.
“I hope your patron’s gifts fit well,” Artis continued. “They were made to your measurements a year ago, but we can have them tailored on the way to Maj Impozars if necessary. Anything to help you stand out. Having a little Candrish flavour to spice up your appearance will — ” When he finally turned around, all the colour drained from his face. He braced himself on the edge of his desk, gaping at me, horrified and emanating disbelief.
“Mother of the Ancestor,” his voice shook. “What have you done?” He frothed at the mouth. “What have you done? Divines stay my hand, you’ve ruined everything. Your hair. What happened to your hair? Your beautiful, long, shiny hair? And your face! What have you — ” He shook his head as if I might return to his normal if he worked hard enough.
I made my way to sit where I always did. “Whatever do you mean?”
Artis flushed, whipping around his desk and grabbing me by the shoulders and whirling me around before I could sit. “You know good and fucking well what I mean. What in Edzhanis’ cursed name is going through your head? What is it?” He shook me. “You’re fucking bald. Bald! Like you’re some pestilent beggar crawling around in the gutters. You’ve put metal in your face like some kind of lowlife criminal. How could you? How could you betray me like this? What’s wrong with you? Speak!” He commanded.
Spittle sprayed my face. I took a deep, centring breath.
The Chobortsriya spoke before me. “Serkun Artis. That will be quite enough. Have a seat before you embarrass yourself.”
“Did you know of this?” He released me and turned toward her, striding halfway across the room. “Do you intend to make me a laughingstock? To play me for a fool before the entire Imperial Court? Has all this been some grand mockery?”
“This is brilliant,” the Chobortsriya asserted. “Utterly and without equal. Those stuffy courtiers wearing their stuffy clothes in their stuffy halls watching stuffy old uzņika perform the same stuffy old acts every single day will be utterly enthralled with her. My dear Dahlia.” She put a hand over her heart. “I am humbled by your ingenuity. Three hundred other uzņika and you’ll stand out a shining beacon of intrigue in a sea of lifeless similitude. The look is perfect. It’s downright haunting. She almost looks… ” the Chobortsriya cocked her head. “Divine.”
Artis looked down, shaking his fist at his side. “Divine Judge imbue me with objectivity now, in my most trying time of need.” He could barely look at me. “No matter what she may think, I am your father. It is my right to decide how you will present yourself to this world from now until your corpse is but ashes on a funeral pyre. You have deliberately and severely wounded me. I am beyond offended, beyond angered, and beyond insulted by this brazen insolence. After all I’ve given you, you cut me in this way? You spit on my generosity? You piss on all I’ve given you?” He stepped closer.
Though my terror howled and raged, threatening to spill forth from my mouth and eyes, I steeled my nerves and so deeply engraved the serene expression I’d seen my sisters-in-training adopt so many times that I feared I’d never be able to make another expression.
“Say something,” he bellowed less than a fingerbreadth from my face.
I looked him in the eye. “I am sorry to have insulted you, father. Please know I intended no offence.”
His face twisted into a rope of disgust, betrayal, and rage. “Insolent child,” he sputtered, snatching my chin in his hand and pressing my cheeks together to part my lips. “Show me your tongue.”
I opened my mouth.
He threw me backwards and spun around, storming toward the Chobortsriya. I fell backwards onto the floor. My head hit the corner of the chair. Pashzak jumped between Artis and the Chobortsriya, drawing a knife from a strap at his hip.
“Do you even understand what it is you idiots imply?” He snarled, gesturing wildly back at me. “Criminals wear rings in their noses and lips. Do you have any idea — can you even fathom — how can you just sit there in tacit approval when my daughter pierced her tongue like a common whore?”
I sucked air through my teeth, holding my head. “I am not a whore,” I shouted back. “I am not a blueblood. Stop trying to make me a blueblood. My blood is black and my soul is Candrish. Let me be Candrish!”
He let loose a derisive cackle. “This is ludicrous. You will cease this lunacy at once.” I opened my mouth to bite back, but he cut me off. “And you — ” Artis pointed at the Chobortsriya. “You’ve allowed my daughter to debase herself like this. You think this is fine? You think she looks respectable? How could you?”
“Here I thought you Imperials were renowned for your vast respect and knowledge of other cultures,” the Chobortsriya loosed back. “She looks no different than she would have had she grown up in Rahvesk. The Empress has many ties to Kandrisev. This will not be unusual for her. She will not think your daughter a prostitute because of a simple tongue piercing. Furthermore, I don’t recall that you procure Brisian citizenship for your nezhdoya. I concede that this woman is your rightful daughter. Be that as it may, until and if she ever becomes an Imperial, I am her Queen.” the Chobortsriya rose. “She is under the official protection of the Yolkerev family. Lady Dahlia: you will be guarded day and night from now until your contract is fulfilled by Pashzak — who is solely loyal to me.” She gestured for me to come forward. “Return at once to your room. Pashzak, stand guard until I send someone to relieve you. Gods willing, you set sail as planned at dawn.”
I didn’t wait for Artis's reply to leave. I peeled myself up and stalked down the hall back to my room, more certain than ever that I’d made the right choice. Finally, the weight of a million unsaid rules and obediences lifted from my chest and I felt as if I could once again breathe.
This was Marrow.
This was me.
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