MARROW: CHAPTER FOUR, SCENE TWO
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
AT MIDDAY, Lady Pearl sent one of the new girls to find me as I sketched in front of Lady Dahlia’s statue.
“Lady Pearl says you have an important guest waiting for you in the atrium,” she said.
“Who?” I asked.
“That’s all she told me.”
“Alright. Thank you, Arta nauve,” I said, packing away my charcoal and parchment. We did not normally host guests on Ninthday. Against my common sense, I hoped it was a potential patron. I hurried to the Butterfly House, wholly underdressed for company and hands blackened with charcoal dust. More likely than not, Lady Pearl had sent to discuss my future if I could not secure a patron — again. If I had to sit through another lecture of that ilk I’d soon find a patron in the fish at the bottom of the Abyss.
I pushed open the door and made my way to the atrium. Surprisingly, Hawthorn was also waiting there. Unlike me, she had no trouble finding a patron; an old mainland man with even older money retired to Örös with a gaggle of consorts and his very young wife.
“He called for you, too?” Hawthorn raised a perfectly plucked eyebrow.
I did the same, though I couldn’t help but think mine were a tad bushy. “Who?”
The door to the bathhouse opened. Artis strolled out ahead of Lady Pearl, exchanging words about renovations. On seeing us, he grinned.
“Juniper! Hawthorn! How good to see you.” His pace quickened. “Now, I’m afraid we’ll need to make this quick, but Divine Mother, you’ve both changed in the last year.” He looked me up and down. “Amazing what a balanced diet can do. And you, Hawthorn…”
I looked down at the little pouch of fat most girls developed just below their navel around my age. Just a little crest that barely disturbed the shapeless cut of my stola. I tried to think of how I looked when metalweaving. My upper arms didn’t shake. My neck wasn’t saggy and my thighs didn’t jiggle. I knit my eyebrows and waited for Artis to pause.
“Do you…” I began. “Do you think I’ve gotten fat?”
He looked at me in shocked silence before guffawing deep from within his belly. “Fat? You? Gods, no. No, no, I’m simply pleased to see how healthy you look. You were so very deathly-thin when I adopted you…” He trailed off. “Anyway, like I said, I must return to my villa with haste. What is it each of you needed?”
Hawthorn stepped forward and presented him with an envelope. “My patron, along with Viscaria’s, have offered to donate the accrued sum of our sister’s debts aside from what Juniper has already generously given in order that she may be released from its bondage.”
He accepted the envelope with a look of genuine bafflement impressed upon his face. “How very generous of them. I will make sure to send them a letter of gratitude and have Artasa Nauve do the same.” He tilted his head. “I admire your ability to find a patron willing to assist with that. Sisterhood and determination are wonderful things. Anything else?”
“You may take your leave.”
She flashed her palms at him.
“Now, Juniper,” he began. “Please, let’s go into this instruction room here.” He gestured for me to step into one of the rooms hidden by a curtain. He shut the door behind us. Sighing, Artis motioned for me to sit on a stool. “Viscaria came to my villa today saying you had questions.”
I bit my lip. “Did she tell you what they’re about?”
“Yes. Please, for the sake of both of our embarrassment, never do so again. It is not my place to find patrons for my daughters. In fact, the Collegium could sue if I did. It must be a contract made on merit and mutual decision alone. Imagine my embarrassment if so much as Rutgita found out. Becoming an uzņika is not a game, but asking such things of me is akin to cheating. Am I understood?”
I bowed my head. “Yes, father. I apologise for insulting you. It’s just… nobody here wants me.”
“Raise your head. You aren’t in my bad graces just yet.” He put a hand on my shoulder. “Listen, Juniper.” Looking down to meet my gaze, he said, “You remember your debut, yes? I think, when it comes to the reason no one has offered you patronage yet, this is the best example. Not a single guest in attendance thought your performance wasn’t anything short of breathtaking. You paid off a quarter of your debt in tips alone.” He paused, frowning. “Ladies Pearl and Amethyst never announced the total your pieces made at auction at my behest, but suffice to say your net worth is now positive. Many times more positive than any other girl here and most of your tutors. One of your pieces — the Lady Gladiolus, I believe — sold to an anonymous bidder for one hundred thousand maugat.” He withdrew his hand.
I sat in stunned silence. One hundred thousand maugat was… an immense sum. Almost twice what I originally owed — for one piece? Try as I might, I could not conceive of how much wealth I now possessed. I squinted. “So why do I even need a patron? If I can pay for my own education, what’s the point?”
“For one, it’s convention, and for two, if you intend to keep your riches — and grow them beyond their current sum — you’ll need a source of income. You’re well-off, Juniper, but you’re far from wealthy. Fashionable costumes and living expenses are not cheap.”
“But what does that have to do with why no one will offer me patronage?”
He paced the front of the room. “It is precisely because you’re so valuable that most of these Örösi men can’t fathom employing you. You’re worth more than many of them have ever been. How do you imagine they feel about that? Gutted, no doubt, and the even less well-to-do are likely mortified at the thought of patronizing an uzņika who could buy their villas out from under them. You’re an uzņika, lowborn, foreign, female— yet you possess more wealth? No. The thought is inconceivable. It would embarrass them immensely if word ever got out — and gossip like that never stays out of lesser folks’ mouths. Worse for you, wealthier Örösi men can afford mainland uzņika. Like it or not, the truth of the matter is that a mainland, Empire-born, noble uzņika will always be more desirable amongst the elite, even if someone like you is available.”
If he were Viscaria, I would have snapped back that perhaps they could get over their egos and help someone who could do nothing more to help herself. His words stung. I hoped he didn’t believe what he was saying himself. But, I was nothing more than an investment. A good one, evidently, but still not good enough.
“You also…” He cleared his throat. “There’s no easy way to put this, but you don’t follow social convention as well as I think you think you do. You’re very… spirited. A charitable take would be that this trait is borne of the fact that you’re an aizņika newly bathed in the love of the Divine Artist. In a man, spiritedness is fine. In females… well, men tend to be put off by it. Especially if that female is an uzņika.” He sighed. “In short, despite all your talent, I think that when eligible patrons look at you, they just can’t see an uzņika.”
I bit my tongue to keep it from striking back. Those words were a twisted knife in my heart. If Örösi men wanted demure, sweet uzņika who followed all the rules, I didn’t want an Örösi patron. The same went for mainland men. That wasn’t me. Me. The woman behind the mask. That tiny morsel of an identity is all I had to ground me when faced with the reality that I was in a strange land doing strange things for the amusement of strangers. If I forgot my face, I’d become the mask. I refused to accept that fate. So what if I made more money than them? So what if I had more verve than others? That wasn’t even true — Viscaria was a zealot for dancing. One only needed to look at the bloody and raw soles of her feet to see that. Lady Hawthorn was a fervid musician. Lady Gardenia’s orations roused even the most apathetic of listeners. Lady Larkspur’s poetry broke the hardest of hearts and uplifted the most sorrowful of spirits. To say they weren’t passionate for their talents was a bold, unbridled lie.
So, my question remained. What was wrong with me?
Artis stopped pacing. “Now. As I have explained, it is not my job to find you a patron. However, I do believe it would be alright if I introduced you to someone who is looking for an uzņika. Tonight I am hosting a party at my villa. One of my associates expected to be in attendance may offer you patronage if you can meet their specifications. Note that those words are very important — ‘may’ and ‘if.’ Unless you are exactly what they’re looking for, I can’t help you.”
My head shot up. “I can be whatever they need.”
“That’s for them to decide. Understand that their patronage will not come at no cost to you. I would go so far as to describe your potential association as a partnership rather than direct employment. You will have to put in more than you get out of it at some times. Since it’s such extremely short notice, I won’t ask you to orchestrate a full performance. Make something simple — a crown of laurels, wrought in gold. I’ll have the materials for you at my villa.” He looked at me. “Will you attend?”
“Absolutely,” I said before his words left the air.
“Very well. I will inform Lady Pearl and send an escort to retrieve you this evening. Go prepare.”
I flashed my palms at him and hurried from the room. This had to work. My entire future hinged on this patron agreeing to support me. I wanted to become an uzņika. Badly. No matter what this patron’s specifications were, I would meet them, even if he wanted me to shave my head or only wear green. I would refuse his patronage for no reason short of murder or lustfulness. All contracts ended. If we came to despise one another, I wasn’t eternally bound to him. All I needed was more time. Someone out there in all the Empire’s provinces had to be a patron who wanted me.
Not Juniper. Not Anemone. Not Argita Nauve.
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