MARROW: CHAPTER FOUR, SCENE THREE
SECTION ONE: THE BUTTERFLY HOUSE
In the Fifth Era of the Paltran Emperors
WHAT OCCURRED AT THE SEASIDE VILLA?
The Third Day of Autumn, Year Forty of the Fifth Era of Paltran Emperors
TRUE to his word, Artis sent an escort to retrieve me precisely as the sun fell from the sky. His villa was opulent in the most unabashed sense of the word. The escort led me through a stone-walled vestibulum with mosaics of beautiful and exotic animals frolicking in all manner of settings — made of the finest Bizreti tile, the escort noted. The ceiling, most of it gilt with brass polished to a high gleam — an idea borrowed from Candrish royal palaces, as I was told — appeared to have precious gems embedded to reflect a rainbow of colours onto the white floor. Native plants held in ornate pots came every few feet.
The nearer we drew the atrium, the louder the chatter. As he pulled open the doors for me, he bowed.
“It was a pleasure, Lady Juniper,” he said, leaving before I could tell him I wasn’t an uzņika yet. I hovered near the door and back wall, struggling with whether to approach Artis or let him come to me. I spied Rutgita speaking with a couple dressed most garishly; faces plastered with cosmetics and grins. The moment before I looked away, she glanced at me, quickly excusing herself before storming my way with the fury of a hurricane.
“What are you doing here?” She hissed in my ear. “And what in the Void’s name are you wearing? Does Lady Pearl have any idea what you’re up to? Oh, we shall be having words tonight.”
“Artis invited me,” I snapped back. “Today. Someone he knows is interested in offering me a contract of patronage. It might be my only chance.”
She paled and dragged me back into the vestibulum. “Listen to me, child.” I’d never heard her voice so fraught and harried. “No patron is worth what he shall ask of you. None. If you never heed my advice again in your life, heed this: do not accept his offer.”
“I need a patron. I’ll be kicked out and have to live on the streets. Besides, you said it yourself: most girls dream of becoming an uzņika.” I pulled my arm away and fixed my sleeves. “Didn’t you?”
Her jaw tightened. “Do not presume to know anything about me or what I dream of. You know nothing.”
“I know that if this patron doesn’t accept me, I’ll end up like you.”
The moment the words left my mouth, I regretted them. Deep, silent pain flashed in her eyes. Without another word she turned heel and stalked away, black skirt hem sweeping across my sandals as she left.
I remained in the vestibulum until I had composed myself. The last thing I needed was for my potential patron to see me flustered — or for Rutgita to do something to try and keep him from meeting me. I quickly smoothed my skirts and pulled the door open. Not two heartbeats later, a young maid wearing a slave’s torc came to me and bowed her head.
“Serkun Artis has asked me to take you to the powder room to prepare,” she said. “Please, follow me.”
I walked behind her through the atrium and into a small room cast off to the side. She let me in without another word.
Despite clearly being meant for refreshing oneself, the powder room was no less opulent than the rest of the villa. An enormous round disc of volcanic glass hung on the longest wall, reflecting my figure back at me. All around it embedded in the wall were beads of silver connected with veins of cobalt; a map of the constellations said the be the soul shards of each god.
I set to fixing what pieces of my hair had fallen out of place and making certain my garb— borrowed from Viscaria so I wouldn’t be seen to have only one good costume — was draped, tied, and pinned in all the right ways.
Once finished, I glanced over my ensemble once more. Briefly, I imagined myself draped in veils and layers of cloth.
I glanced away. Maybe I didn’t deserve this. That’s why no one wanted to offer patronage. I simply wasn’t good enough. Viscaria said it, Artis said it, all of them said it whether those blunt words had left their mouths or not. There was no work for uzņikalike me in Örös, and I’d be slaughtered by true Imperial art in the mainland.
My hair was black, coarse, thick, and took ages to style and wash. I wasn’t ugly, but I wasn’t pretty, either. I was thin, sure, but also lacked any sort of curves because of it. My eyebrows were bushy, I had the worst overbite of any aizņika I’d met, and my feet, despite Rutgita’s assertion, seemed to be growing faster than the rest of me. No matter how often I waxed my limbs and armpits, the hair seemed to grow back thicker and faster. My fingernails were always bitten short, ragged-edged, and that was to say nothing of the chubby fingers attached to them.
If I was not beautiful, I was average: the antithesis of an aizņika who could find a worthwhile patron. Voice, dance, music, calligraphy, all of it was well and good, but even the most dishonest guests would say that skill alone did not an uzņika make. The only special thing about me was that I could metalweave.
I didn’t want to admit it, but I knew that wasn’t enough.
A knock on the door broke my attention. I opened it to find the same maid standing there, waiting.
“Serkun Artis has announced your performance will begin shortly. I am to return you to the atrium.”
Again, I followed behind. She led me to the center of the atrium, which was now laid out with divans, cushions, and chairs. Men and women lounged about, sipping wine and eating from polished platters of finger foods: grapes, nuts, cheese, hemp cakes and other desserts. A harpist and a flautist played soft notes from the corner of the room to the beat set by a rather restrained drummer.
“Presenting Aizņika Juniper of the Limhoriò House of Butterflies,” the maid loudly announced. “Glory to the Empress Ozelyga Petrys Sukilnus Klauds Marzrēvius Glaunys Maj Paltra Maj Impozars. Unite or Die!”
“Unite or Die!” A chorus of wasted cheers replied.
A pair of eunuchs set at my feet a small block of gold sat atop a deep violet pillow. I’d seldom worked with gold. Thankfully, it was amongst the most malleable metals — far easier to bend and shape than iron. I lifted my hand and let my Essence flow.
The world melted away as I danced and wove, letting intuition guide me. A crown of laurels. Artis was lucky I had studied laurels before.
As I danced, I noticed a woman veiled head-to-toe in gold and black. Beside her, a young man watched my performance intently from the back of the room. A young blackblood man. His nose leather was dark as the Void; his eyes and hair, brown as autumn, and his skin grey as the Moon of Vane.
Him. He was the potential patron. No one else looked at me with such intensity. I quickened my pace; dancing and weaving until the crown was complete. While Artis's guests cheered, I brought the crown to the young man and placed it on his head.
He recoiled, eyes wide, glancing quickly at the woman beside him, whom I assumed was his wife. I brushed my thumb down my nose at both, showing the palm of my hand. “Juniper!” Artis's familiar voice sang from behind me.
I pivoted to greet him. Dressed so plainly, he was almost unrecognisable. He wore robes of simple black and blue and a hat not unlike the one he donned the day I met him. “Why, that was lovely. Please, follow me,” he said.
We walked side-by-side to his study. He sat behind a blocky wooden table. Overall, the room was very neat. No stacks of papers or codexes laid about; the only thing on his desk was a blank sheet of vellum, an inkpot, and a reed pen.
When I took a seat on one of three chairs sat before his desk, all the breath I never knew I was holding came tumbling out at once. My heart pounded a hundred times faster than ever before. Blood pulsed through me with such intensity I could feel every vein from my head down to my toes. My leg bounced with unbridled ferocity. Words tumbled out of me so fast I barely knew what I was saying. “Did he like it? Will he offer me patronage? Was I right about who it was? Did I do it? What do you think?”
Artis chuckled. “Did he like it? Most certainly, but no, he is not the one interested in offering you patronage.”
I blanched. A leaden weight on my heart pulled me down, down, down until tears bled from my eyes. “What?”
“If my associate wishes to offer you patronage, they will arrive here shortly. Please just sit tight — and try to stop crying, please, it’s unbecoming.”
“I want this,” I cried. “I asked for your help because I’ll end up on the streets. I don’t want to become a prostitute or a beggar or a— ”
“And you won’t.” His voice grew deep and stern. “You are my daughter. I chose you. Do you think I am so inadept at choosing uzņika that you would not become one? If you cannot keep your composure, leave this room immediately and find a patron through normal means.”
Suspicion arose in me. I drew a few shallow breaths and said confidently as I could, “Why are you helping me?”
He raised an eyebrow.
“You said the Collegium could sue you for this. Why risk it?”
He scoffed. “You insult me. To think I must have some ulterior motive for — ”
The door creaked open. Immediately, Artis stood. I did the same.
The young man I crowned came in, followed by his wife. I resisted the urge to shoot Artis a quizzical look.
“You may be seated. We’ve a lot of ground to cover, girl, so hold your tongue until I finish speaking. Answer me concisely and only if I ask you a direct question. Am I understood?” The shrouded woman said in Candrish.
I choked out, ‘Uhm, yes, Serkana.”
“You will address me as Chobortsriya — none of this ‘Serkana’ nonsense. You sound like an Imperial; have you forgotten your roots already?”
Speaking Candrish after so long of being locked in the Imperial tongue felt… strange. I thought in Candrish, dreamt in Candrish, prayed in Candrish, but the only words I spoke anymore were Brisian. I sat down.
“I understand you’re having trouble finding a sponsor to finish your training as a — ” She squinted. “Uzn’yika. As I understand it, you were afforded this privilege because you are nezhdoya in our homeland. I also trust Uyr Melidi has explained that my patronage comes at a cost. What I can do for you must be repaid with what you can do for me. Understand, girl, that this is your one chance to leave. If you stay, you will be bound to silence. If ever a word of this conversation or who you met in this room are uttered, I will have you beaten, killed, and dumped off the coast of Örös.” The woman paused. “But I am not without kindness. I want you to know what you are agreeing to do. I am asking you, as the condition of my patronage, to be titled as an uzņika on the very day you turn nineteen.”
That was it? I sat on the edge of my seat. Surely that wasn’t what made Rutgita so worried for me. It dawned on me, however, that I’d never heard of a woman offering a contract of patronage — let alone a foreigner.
My eyes widened. Had I really just thought that? A foreigner? As if I belonged in Örös any more than she did?
“In year two-hundred-thirty of the Second Age, the Grand Duke of Brisia will turn twenty-one,” she said.
I glanced at her, then Artis.
“The forty-sixth year of the Fifth Era,” he clarified. “Six years from now.”
“He has no uzn’yika,” the Chobortsriya said. “Something he must acquire before his accession or the court will think less of him. Indeed, the entire court is due to seek five Imperial Uzn’yika. Including,” she continued, “the Empress. Not long after you turn nineteen, the Imperial Court will issue an invitation to every one of your campuses; they’ll be expected to send their two best uzn’yika to the Imperial Province so they may compete to fill one of these five positions.” I faced Artis. “I — I’m sorry. I don’t understand.”
The Chobortsriya’s voice remained smooth. “Let us make this simple: you will be sent to become the Empress’ personal uzņika not long after you turn nineteen. All of your expenses will be taken care of, forever. Money is no object to me. When you retire, you may return to Kandrisev if you wish, select ninety acres of your choosing, and live out your days in peace and with unimaginable wealth. Or, I will finance your retirement at an Imperial villa, if you wish to remain here.” She sat back. “This is the condition of my patronage. Do you accept?”
“That can’t be the only thing you want me to do,” I stammered.
“Do you accept?” Her words were quick and fierce.
I stared helplessly at Artis. He crossed his arms.
“But what must I pay you for the privilege?”
“Your Grace, if I may — ” Artis stood. “Let me speak with her privately. I don’t doubt her eagerness or her ability to accomplish what you ask of her, but I think a father-daughter chat will help bring some clarity.”
“Indeed. We’ll wait outside. Pashzak,” she snapped.
He stood and followed her out.
My head spun. “Who is that?” I asked Artis in Brisian.
“Marrow, it’s time we talk about the Candrish Civil War.”
I squinted at him. “The war? What do I care about a war? I want to know who she is and why this is what she wants from me.”
“Or what? You’ll walk?” he chortled. “Who she is doesn’t matter. But I want you to think about something. You are my daughter, but you were born in Rahvesk. In Kandrisev. You’ll always be Rahvi at heart.” His voice softened. “This war has gone on as long as you’ve lived. Do you know which regions have been ravaged? Razed? That have had more clans slaughtered and more souls shattered than any other? Rahvesk. Ochetsk. The regions in the middle. Your clan, your family — they are the ones ensnared in the jaws of this conflict, Marrow. They have been for years and years. Don’t you want to help them?”
Hearing my true name sent a thunderbolt through my heart. He was serious. This wasn’t something done on a whim. I picked at my cuticles. “But how will this help them? How does this have anything to do with becoming the Empress’ uzņika?”
“The Chobortsriya will not ask much from you. All you need to do is… well, engage in a little palace gossip. Who sees who, who the Empress counts amongst her friends, where her animosity lies. What defences or weaponry they may be developing. If they’re sending aid to any Candrish queens — or confirmation that they aren’t.”
I giggled despite feeling ill. “You want me to spy.”
“I want you to live a happy, fulfilling life engaged in the art you love for an audience that will love you ever more dearly,” Artis said. “If you are chosen to become Uzņika Impozars — which I believe you have an excellent chance of accomplishing because of your uniqueness— you will never want for anything in your life ever again. You’ll attend parties, banquets, tournaments, with Brisian elite — far more elite than most uzņika ever achieve, even the best. You’ll be on the Imperial payroll and wealthy beyond your loftiest dreams. Perhaps you’ll even travel the countryside and perform for all manner of interesting folk.”
“I may dream, but I am not delusional. I am far, far, far from the best uzņika in the Empire, let alone good enough to capture the attention of the Empress. I’m not even Brisian. I’m Candrish, like you said. Why would she want me?”
“Look, Juniper, this is very simple. You aren’t hurting anyone by participating in normal palace gossip. Everyone does it. You think mainland uzņika actually abide by your silly little codes and keep every word they hear inside their head? You’d be utterly naïve.”
I bit my lip. So many thoughts. So much danger. If I went through with this, would I still be an uzņika? Or wouldn’t I be a spy? Another mask. A mask for my mask for three masks beneath that one. Was I never meant to show my face?
My stomach churned.
If I failed, I would never be Marrow. I’d be the maid or the prostitute or the whelp. I didn’t have the privilege that allowed Rutgita to go about her life. At least as an uzņika, someone may love me enough to love me.
“I’ll do it,” I said.
My confidence caught him off guard. He cocked his head.
“Draw up the contract. I’ll do what she wants.” My heart beat in my throat.
Artis called the Chobortsriya and Pashzak back inside and returned to his desk. “Very well. We have reached a decision,” he said.
The butterflies in my stomach became a swarm of hornets.
“Congratulations, girl,” the Chobortsriya said in Candrish. “Your father and I will write the contract. It will be delivered tomorrow morning to your campus. Before you are on your way, do me a favour.”
I seemed to move faster than the world around me as I turned to face her. “Yes, Chobortsriya?” My voice seemed detached from my body.
“Think of your tongue.”
It felt swollen. Sore. Too big for my mouth.
“Now imagine having it torn out by the root with a hot, sharp knife.”
I winced, drawing back from her.
“I make no false claims, Juniper, and I will not hesitate to dispose of you if you become a liability to me.”
“I understand, Chobortsriya,” I chattered out.
“Good. Now, return to the party. An escort will bring you back to your home shortly. Do not be surprised if you do not hear from me again until it’s time for your titling.” “Of course, Chobortsriya. Thank you.”
“You may go.”
Shaking, I practically ran out the door, down the hall, and to the atrium door, breaths hard and quick. This was what I wished for. A patron. A patroness. The price was steep, but not unreasonable. Everyone gossiped, just like Artis said. An uzņika for the Empress. But what if I failed? Then what? Would I be killed, maimed, imprisoned anyway?
I tried not to think of it any longer lest terror swallow me whole. All I needed to do now was become an uzņika. My thoughts escaped me. No. Not just an uzņika.
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