MARROW: CHAPTER NINE, SCENE ONE
SECTION TWO: THE HALL OF ONE HUNDRED PETALS
In the Fifth Era of the Paltran Emperors
Late Winter of Year Forty-Three
Winter of Year Forty-Four
WAS THE SECOND PHASE OF EXAMINATIONS DIFFICULT?
Mid-Summer through Late Autumn of the Year Forty-Four of the Fifth Era of Paltran Emperors
ON THE forty-eighth day of Summer, Laude came into my room as I made my bed.
“I am pleased to announce the thinning is ended and the second phase of examinations has begun. Her Majesty has requested the presence of each remaining uzņika outside the Hall no later than moonset and that you should wear something befitting of comfort and the outdoors.”
I grimaced. Our numbers had thinned considerably from the two-hundred-fifty of us who made it through the preliminary examinations; only one hundred remained. Of us, the Empress herself would select twenty-five uzņika to endure examinations administered by the Imperial Artists’ Collegium as well as rehearse for her Cobalt Jubilee this winter. My chest buzzed with excitement. To have made it this far was a blessing and a sure indication of my skill, but no matter how well I performed, I was not an uzņika. Not, at least, in the way uzņika were made. What I had heard of the Örösi examinations paled in comparison to what was done before the Imperial Court, but nothing I did could break my thoughts about what woman might be standing here in my place had Artis not bribed the Minister. Perhaps I would have changed my mind and deferred. Perhaps I would have failed. Perhaps, if I had only waited a few weeks longer, had my birthday not been the ninth of Winter, I would be at a research post in Rendroxja alongside Serkun Glaunas Aimaj Voignovus or sculpting my days away in some private villa garden with Admiral Marzrēvius Aimaj Novēgas looking on. But, it was folly to think of such things. I was here, now. Moreover, I was here now. If I wanted any chance at redemption, I had to prepare for my day.
I painted my eyes and lips with jūdra, washed my hands, arms, neck, and face in water perfumed with myrrh, and donned my undergarments, for which Laude absconded and returned to help me into my Summer costume. Together, we went outside. Only three other uzņika waited there, none of whom I recognized. Someone had marked spots with chalk on the ground for each of us to stand at; Laude took me to the first slot in the ninth column and whispered, “May the Divine Ancestor smile upon you today, Lady Dahlia.”
I smiled at him and nodded.
Others slowly trickled in to fill the space around me. The hundred of us remained standing in silence long after the last uzņika arrived. The air stank of perfumed sweat and worry. Every moment, the sun drew nearer its zenith, and every moment, my knees grew a little weaker as the air grew hot and thick with water. My feet cramped. My back ached. My head pounded. But, I refused to show weakness. I was so close to tasting victory, to earning my title, that I could almost hear the Chobortsriya and Artis licking their lips in anticipation.
Silently, I cycled through every song I knew. As I began a second rendition of The Moons Shone Full, a thud like a sack of flour dropped on the concrete ground startled me and my head snapped left. The uzņika beside me had collapsed in a heap of Summer silks and sweat. Two Mūsar filtered through our ranks and carried her back into the Hall.
The sound of her collapse echoed inside my head. I didn’t care to know what that single, uncontrollable misfortune meant for her future. I prayed the blood in my legs would quit pooling near my feet before I ended up like her.
Not very long after this, two blue-and-red-robed eunuchs finally appeared, each carrying an enormous scroll case. They took their time readying themselves for whatever speech they had prepared. When they finally acknowledged us, the sun had reached its zenith. The taller eunuch held up his scroll and cleared his throat.
“By order of Her Majesty, when you hear your name, you shall step forward to be counted; then, you shall return to your room to await further instruction.” He shifted his weight to stand more comfortably. “Group the first: Lady Lily of Vagrou, Maj Dvogas; Lady Myrtle of Natonorvai Nieji, Maj Sutki; Lady Olive of Tsapiski, Maj Novi; Lady Foxglove of [Place, Maj]; Lady Lilac of [Place, Maj].”
One by one I heard them leave, but I couldn’t bring myself to look. Eyes locked on the eunuch, I listened. The longer he went without saying my name, the louder the blood rushing in my ears and the painful aching in my chest. Whatever he called me for, it was either the end of my time in Maj Impozars or onto the next round of examinations and prolonging the inevitable. When the last of the second group made their way inside, he began calling the third. “Lady Moss of Vilepliņu, Maj Novi. Lady Bellflowers of [Place, Maj]. Lady Honeysuckle of [Place, Maj.] Lady Amaranth of [Place, Maj]. Lady Dahlia of Limhoriò, Örös.”
I released the breaths I didn’t know I was holding and turned. My joints had nearly rusted in place, but I forced them ahead, eyes cast to the ground to hide the tears welling within them as I raced up the steps with decorum. I made it. I made it. Her Majesty wanted me. Warmth flooded my toes as the blood rushed back into them. I smiled. Her Majesty wanted me.
When I returned to my room, Pashzak and Laude were there waiting with a bottle of plum wine. They laughed, I cried, we drank and sang and played tabula until the moons began to rise and Pashzak was made to leave. For once, I missed him. He infuriated me, surely, but if nothing else he knew how to throw a proper celebration. More than I missed him, I missed the Duchess. I sat on my bed, woozy and disoriented, thinking of when I might see her again. It didn’t seem likely for a long while, if ever.
Suddenly, I began to cry. The tears poured and poured, snot bubbling and dripping down my nose, eyes blurred by sorrow and wine. It would never last, our friendship. It would turn out just like it had with Viscaria—her, not knowing why I left, me, whisked away to some new and strange place for my own protection once the game had ended and the Blue Queen had fallen. It wasn’t fair. I hadn’t even gotten to say goodbye.
“I never got to say goodbye,” I murmured, laying on my side. The cot was cold and empty. I had loved Viscaria as my own sister and lost her as I had lost my own sisters. It was a cycle that would repeat endlessly until I broke that wheel—but how? How, when each spoke was a rod of rock and its rim was sharper than an edge of broken glass?
I slid off one of the brass rings I wore and played with it in the palm of my hand, bending and twisting it into a snake, a face, a flower, a butterfly, crushing it until the metal dripped between my fingers and landed as droplets on the wood floor below, thunk thunk thunk.
I had promised long ago that no more butterflies would die by my hand. I had already destroyed many a butterfly’s chance at freedom simply with my presence. It seemed the lot of the weak to undermine the strong, to cheat and lie and forge their way into greatness and leave the other butterflies behind. Another wave of tears washed over me. Viscaria deserved this.
I did not.
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