MARROW: CHAPTER NINE, SCENE THREE
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, I rose in somber silence and swiftly made my bed. Laude and Pashzak knocked on my door mere moments after I finished and crowded into my little room, Pashzak with the usual morning pleasantries and Laude with a hot and sour breakfast soup. As I ate, I tried very hard to think of something other than what was to come later this morning. Today, Her Majesty would choose the final ten.
Only Lady Moss and I had survived the culling of our group. Pared down to just fifteen uzņika, today was yet another day for us to meet our fate. Either I left this place shamed and homeward bound or remained, shamed and bound. No matter what, my success or failure was entirely the burden of my own shoulders. If I succeeded, it was on my own merit; if I failed, the same. There was no room for grey. No place for error. Today, I had to get everything exactly right
“Excited?” Pashzak asked. “You’re quiet this morning.”
“Blessed,” I replied, sipping the last dregs from the bottom.
“You’re religious now?”
I feigned another sip, though by now the acrid liquid was gone. As Laude reached out a hand to take my bowl and spoon, a knock came at the door. My heart thumped and descended to my stomach. He scurried away and pulled it open to reveal another eunuch, this one wearing much more stately garb, who bore a tightly-wound scroll.
“By the Imperial Order of Her Majesty our Empress of Brisia Ozelyga and-so-forth Maj Paltra Maj Impozars, I bestow upon Lady Dahlia of the Limhoriò House of Butterflies this ceremonial gown and bid her arrive at the curtilage of this Hall of One Hundred Petals as soon as she dons it. Shall I count on her presence?”
Shaking, I nodded. Laude took a small cedar box from another eunuch hidden behind the first and brought it to my cot, closing the door behind him. Every nerve in my body screamed at me to jump up and down in the heir like an excited little girl and wail like an infant at the thought of losing my chance, but I maintained my decorum and elegantly stood. Pashzak left the room with Laude. If Her Majesty chose this costume herself, she had quite the eye for fashion and an affinity for silk; silk hose, garters, and camisia, and when Laude returned to help with my overgarments, a silken silver stola, azure dalmatic embroidered with metallic threads hiding luxurious golden slippers beneath, all made of the same material. Segmentae bearing butterflies and marshflowers adorned the lower third of the dalmatic inside circles rimmed with gold thread. Before donning the tall, wide-tipped hat which came with the ensemble, I sat at my table to paint myself with jūdra, kohl, and perfume. Laude let Pashzak back inside.
“Artis wishes you well,” he said, watching me powder my nose.
I didn’t reply. Painting my eyelids required concentration, anyway. I was supposed to be a living work of art. Artwork didn’t have shaky lines and smudged corners from the hand of a distracted painter. As I worked, Pashzak continued, “His brother, Procurator Domis, has requested you to join him, Artis, and Serkana Rutgita for supper this evening.”
“No. Not tonight. Not any night.”
“It wasn’t really a request.” Pashzak sighed. “You can’t avoid him forever. Sooner or later you’ll have to speak with him again, even if only in passing. It’s better to be prepared and have a plan than it will be to make a bad situation worse.”
“How he reacts to my silence is not my fault.”
“And it’s neither his fault how you react to his presence. For your own sake, Lady Dahlia, consider just being pleasant. You don’t have to love him—you don’t even have to like him—but for this to work, you must be able to tolerate him.”
I drew in a deep, shaky breath. “Laude, please escort my brother out so I can finish preparing.”
“Of course, Lady Dahlia.”
Pashzak was silent as Laude led him from the room.
Once satisfied with my condition, I strode outside, head held high. Someone had set up a desk about twenty steps away from the Hall steps, behind which two different eunuchs sat. By now, I wasn’t sure I’d seen the same eunuch twice besides Laude. I let that thought carry me toward the four uzņika lined up single file ahead of the desk, all wearing costumes of the exact make and style as mine. I took my place behind them and waited.
After a little while of waiting, one of the eunuchs spoke up. “To ensure the correct uzņika are present, I shall read your group number and name aloud. If you are here, announce your name, origin, and speciality. You shall then come to my companion and sign your name upon his tablet, then line up in front of our table facing your peers to await further instruction.” He sniffed. “From group two: Lady Camellia.”
“Lady Camellia of Lekiškiai, Maj [Name], specialising in classical dance,” said the first uzņika in line. She broke rank to do as the eunuch instructed. When she faced us, I studied her; hers was a look of quiet intensity wrapped in a silken shroud of gracefulness; white hair, round face, stormy-blue skin, petite nose and stature, and upturned ears which flickered ever so slightly as the eunuch said another name.
“From group one: Lady Olive.”
“Lady Olive of Tsapiski, Maj [Name], specialising in eloquence.”
I recalled seeing Lady Olive at the thinning. She, like everyone else, was well-suited to being called a living work of art with her sharp features, strong eyes, and white hair which shone beneath her hat. She was much taller than Lady Camellia; the two looked like elder and younger siblings.
“From group four: Lady Hibiscus.”
“Lady Hibiscus of Turovas, Maj [Name], specialising in eloquence as well.”
One by one they went and signed their names, then stood off to the side. Ladies Camellia and Olive kept their heads down, but Lady Hibiscus studied the rest of us with an intensity that was almost aggressive. Her hair was black as tar and her square jawline gave an almost menacing look to the rest of her.
“Also from group four: Lady Mint,” the eunuch said.
“Lady Mint of Pipali, Solka, specialising in poetry.”
My stomach lurched. Solka? It couldn’t be. I watched Lady Mint, a mousy, silver-haired woman even smaller than Lady Camellia, make her way to the wax tablet. Artis told me the day we left that only mainland uzņika were invited. That he had to pull strings with his brother. Sweat trickled down my spine. There was no reason to lie. No reason, unless…
“Lady Dahlia, if you are here, now is the time to say so,” the eunuch curtly stated.
I flushed. “Lady Dahlia of Limhoriò, Örös, specialising in sculpture.” I stumbled, jelly-legged, to their table.
“From group five: Lady Geranium,” he continued.
Blood rushed in my ears, drowning out all else. There was no conceivable reason to pretend I was here as a favour except to prevent me from knowing that one of my sisters-in-training was here, too. Perhaps she had also made a deal with Elgana. But was it Larkspur or Gardenia? I signed my name in the wax.
When I found my place next to Lady Mint, I forced myself to keep my eyes on my feet. I had not seen a single uzņika I knew for the entire examinations period. Surely if Lady Mint was from Solka, there were other Solkans, and if that was true surely other Örösi candidates, too. Both suzerainties had more than one launnal. I held fast my gaze through three more names: Ladies Sloe, Barberry, and Buttercup. Lady Moss hadn’t made it. As soon as I formed the thought, my heartbeats grew so rapid I was certain everyone could hear them. I made it. I was in the final round. As Lady Buttercup moved to sign her name, I drew short, thin breaths from the top of my lungs. My heart was a war drum. I could hold my head down no longer. I let myself look.
The ghost of every butterfly I’d ever killed fluttered inside my chest.
“Lady Viscaria of Limhoriò, Örös, specialising in classical dance,” she said.
If I could have traded places the fainting uzņika all those weeks ago, I would have done so in an instant. Her name reverberated inside my head. Viscaria. Lady Viscaria. My Viscaria. A lump rose in my throat. I cast my eyes down again, no longer wanting to look. Her image burned my eyes. Of course Artis told me I would come alone. Had I known of her presence, I would have thrown every one of my examinations, consciously or not. She had been so kind. So gracious. So dedicated to ensuring my success. And here I was, betraying her with every breath I took and every moment I stood in this spot that should have been hers, that was hers, now. She deserved this life—for herself, for Alyssum, for Hawthorn. If they knew what I’d done to get here, they would call me much worse things than arrogant bitch or fucking ankle, and I would deserve every word of it. Larkspur and Gardenia would hang their heads in shame. I couldn’t begin to fathom how Lady Pearl would react—or Lady Amethyst.
If I wanted to become Uzņika Impozars—and I did not know that I wanted to—I would have to betray every single moment Viscaria spent slaving away to keep me from a life of disgrace.
“Congratulations, uzņika. Then ten of you were hand-selected by Her Majesty from the files of twenty-five others to spend the next month in her service, proving that you alone are worthy to wield a place of high esteem within her Court. Five of you shall go on to become Imperial Uzņika: Uzņika Impozars, Serkunus, Maj, Brisia, or Bristelsevs.” The eunuch paused, looking at each one of us with serious eyes. I hadn’t even noticed him come around the other side of the table or our eunuchs come outside the Hall to line up at its steps. “The rest shall be dismissed before the end of Autumn with an Imperial Recommendation to begin their own launnal at a location of their choosing funded by the Imperial Artists’ Collegium. Now you shall follow me and my companion to the Inner Court, where you shall receive your next instructions directly from Her Majesty’s own mouth. Please make one quarter-turn to your left and follow me closely.”
We all did as he asked. Our eunuchs walked alongside us as we marched across the Inner Court, winged on either side by a dozen Mūsar as we approached the deepest reaches near the Imperial Family’s residences. An enormous wood-and-stone palace painted a deep and vibrant blue loomed against the back wall of the complex: the cobalt Palace of the Ancestor, home to our Dowager Empress. A wall of Mūsar three men deep stood in front of a veiled canopy set up on the landing before the Palace doors. Copper statues of twin peacocks coated in verdigris guarded the steps, backed by enormous columns which held up the stoa surrounding the palace.
My heart beat in my throat. This may have been the closest I ever ventured near Her Majesty. After today, I may never see the Inner Court—or Laude, or Martere, or Viscaria—ever again. If Her Majesty disliked me, surely there was nothing Artis could reasonably expect me to do about it. She wasn’t some lowly court astrologist or vice principal scholar. I had no business nor ability to manipulate a woman of her station. I didn’t even know how to begin to try.
The eunuchs led us within ten steps of the Mūsar wall and lined us up in one long row with enough space to outstretch our arms between us. I swallowed. This was it. Today, I would meet the Empress.
“We bring before Your Majesty ten uzņika of greatest renown and proficiency in various arts for Your Majesty’s consideration,” one of our eunuchs announced.
“Uzņika,” the Mūsar thundered. “Greet your Empress.”
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