MARROW: CHAPTER FIVE, SCENE TWO
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 HID inside the powder room Artis's maid had taken me to the night I met the Chobortsriya. My terror consumed me. I wailed like a dying animal for all I had lost. If anyone heard me, I could not have cared any less. Let them hear. Let them snicker and gossip about my lack of dignity. This whole mess was by virtue undignified. It made a mockery of me, of the art, of every aizņika before me who had been denied their title by circumstances outside their control. If I told anyone, I would disgrace myself and Artis. He deserved it, but the wrath he would visit upon me for tainting his name was enough to put any thoughts of tattling out of mind. Other girls were killed for less — even natural-born daughters. And, this said nothing of the Chobortsriya’s certain fury. Those bereaved by my death would be lucky to have a scrap of flesh left to burn.
I stared at my reflection in the volcanic glass. I looked nothing like an uzņika. I looked nothing like me. What I saw in that mirror was feral. Rabid. Devoid of empathy and not worthy of sympathy.
In the background reflected the divine constellations. I couldn’t help but envision Viscaria and her igat. I could never hope to be as strong as her — nor as beautiful, nor as talented, nor as deserving of this chance. I imagined her on the night she named me Juniper; how proud she looked. How happy for me despite the terrible thing Artis had done to Alyssum. And here I sat, a mess of tears and self-loathing, surrounded by regret and ill-conceived notions of clawing my way into a future I was not worthy of.
I wiped snot and tears from my face with my sleeve. If it stained, so be it. All those things I prayed to the Divine Household for seemed so naïve. There was no Divine Ancestor watching over me. My ancestors wouldn’t even recognise me in this state. Not even Pashzak did. He said it himself: I sounded Brisian. But I didn’t feel Brisian. I didn’t feel like anything. I may as well have been floating around in the Void, disconnected from every piece of the world except the moment in which I existed.
May I earn the respect of my father. My father wouldn’t recognise me. I couldn’t even remember his name, or his voice, or what he looked like. May I honour my mother. How could I honour her in this state? I was soft as goose down and more fragile than a newborn lamb. My clan would have left me behind and they would be right to do so. I couldn’t hunt. I couldn’t forage. I couldn’t survive. The only thing I would be good for was distracting children with my Essence while the adults did useful things.
May I set a virtuous example for my sons and daughters. What sons and daughters? What children would I ever have? Uzņika were forbidden to marry. Their fathers had the right to condemn their daughters and their grandchildren to death for disobeying the law. Patrons could be jailed for sleeping with their uzņika. I would never bring children into a world as violent as this, as controlling and putrid and vile.
May I live in harmony with my brothers and sisters. I had no siblings. None I knew of, at least, and none that were of my blood like Viscaria had in Hawthorn and Alyssum. I and my sisters-in-learning lived peaceably enough, but some god’s pithy tenets weren’t the reason for our accord. All of us were nezhdoya. We understood one another’s pain. Why add to it needlessly?
May my virtue enhearten my uncles and aunts. What virtue? None existed within me. I’d paid my way to the title of uzņika by being a stupid petulant child who couldn’t accept that perhaps this life wasn’t meant for her. This mess was my fault. No ancestor of mine could look upon me with felicity. I was an abomination. I didn’t deserve to call myself an uzņika nor Rahvi. My very existence was an embarrassment.
I traced my fingertips over my face, imagining the layers of flesh peeling back until the purest form of my being exposed itself to the world as I raked my nails down my cheeks. Argita Nauve. Anemone. Juniper. Dahlia. I said them aloud. Argita Nauve. Anemone. Juniper. Dahlia. Slowly, I uncoiled my hair and let it fall around my shoulders. Tarred by its length as if cloaked in darkness, I gathered it in one hand and held it out to the side.
In my reflection, for the briefest moment, I saw my mother. My stomach churned. She wouldn’t roll over and let them steal her face. If she knew of my weakness in standing up to Artis and the Chobortsriya, it would appall her. The intoxicating scent of home filled my nose: the scent of sweet grass and open fields sprinkled with musk and riverbed, bathed in woodsmoke and wind.
I stood, letting go of my hair. It hung down to my hips. No one else would fight for me. No god could protect me. No other being could atone for my mistakes. My morals were my own to guard. If I had any chance at becoming an uzņika on merit alone, it would be by throwing Artis and the Chobortsriya’s scheme right back in their faces and earning the Empress’ regard. No bribes. No subterfuge. Cold, honest hard work.
Vicious determination boiled in my chest. If it was me they expected to play their little game, that was who they would get: me. Marrow. No one else. All other bets were off.
As I swept from the room toward the bedroom Artis's slaves had prepared for me, I vowed to deliver on my side of the contract. I would live a happy, fulfilling life engaged in my art, attending social functions and enjoying unimaginable wealth. I’d make myself so desirable the Empress would have no choice but to select me. I’d be utterly unable to be passed over. No mainland uzņika could hope to compete.
Once I crossed the threshold, I disrobed at once and set to work. If I could have no formal ceremony, tonight’s meeting would suffice. Enough sorrow and uncertainty. Tonight, they would have no choice but to see my face.
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