MARROW: CHAPTER NINE, SCENE TWO
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
From that day forward, examinations were the most difficult exercise I had ever endured in my entire life. Through the months of Rain and Summer, I and my group of five uzņika spent our days inundated with round-the-clock assessments, rehearsals, and solo performances. We rarely saw anyone from the other groups; if we did, they were from groups two or four, whose schedules respectively ended and began as ours did. Most of the women in my group were nice enough, but we all accepted the reality that we were not here to make friends. Rigorous did not do justice to the pain we shared in proving ourselves worthy. I ate so many poppy leaf tablets that Laude forced me to vomit one night out of fear I’d taken too many.
I did not see Artis either month. According to Pashzak, he was still at Court, but busy with catering to his brother’s demands. I took it as a blessing from the Divine Artist that he did not make an effort to see me. The less I had to worry about provoking him, the better I did in my examinations. During a particularly gruelling week of dance examinations, I told Laude he was to refuse Artis entry to the Hall at all. The stress of it alone might have killed me.
Not long into the second phase, Laude told me to prepare a statue to at last demonstrate my metalweaving before a panel of the Divine Caster’s priests. I was the only Essencecaster in my group. I had heard vague news of other uzņika in the final twenty-five who danced with fire or water, and two who commanded wind—but no one blessed with metalweaving. But: standing out for that reason alone was not enough.
I set to work on my statue. Every waking hour not spent on examinations, practice, or rehearsal was spent on my statue. It had to be glorious. Astounding. My best work yet. Between all I did in a day, I barely had time to think, let alone eat or sleep. By midsummer, I knew my routine as I once again knew the warmth of Essence within my veins. Wake before dawn. Pray to the Divine Artist. Eat an egg or two for breakfast. Hear the day’s schedule from Laude. Practice as much as possible before my first round of assessments. Practice more instead of taking lunch. Attend the second round of assessments. Eat a supper of bread and cheese. Practice more. Collapse into bed — or onto the floor, as Laude had found me more than one morning — once exhaustion consumed me. That same morning he returned from his daily chores with a satchel: more poppy leaf tablets to ease my pain. Without them, I don’t know how I could have carried on. My feet constantly ached and swelled and bled. The throbbing in my head almost never went away. My back and neck and shoulders were stiff and sore from the sheer weight of my costumes and how long I had to wear them. Some days I could barely lift anything heavier than a bite of egg to my mouth. On others, if I moved too swiftly or too long, my world spun.
Once per week, we met with the Imperial Physicians for inspection. Divine Healer forbid you told them you had so much as a headache—Lady Bellflowers was disqualified for as much, and Lady Amaranth was struck down by a cold after an unexpected frost came through in Early rain. It went without saying that if it couldn’t be fixed in a day, your candidacy ended that instant. So, whenever I visited our physician, Gavmars, I told him with a smile, “I feel perfectly fine, thank you.”
I had to attend one such inspection the morning of my sculpture exhibition, but instead of seeing Gavmars Laude brought me to an unfamiliar part of the Hall of Good Humours to see an elderly and gentle man: Ralturs.
He sat on the other side of an opaque curtain between us for the entire appointment. The two maids who had felt me over for him helped me dress as he wrote on his wax tablet. Once dressed, I came around the screen.
“You’re on the brink of losing too much weight,” he told me.
Immediately, my heart was pounding. My stomach churned. All that hard work, wasted. All for nothing. Naught. All my tears and sleepless nights, all my worries and aches and pains, all meaningless. I would be tossed out of the running mere moments before my chance to show everyone what set me apart.
“The kitchen shall provide you with a warm and moist diet to replenish your humours. Have your eunuch bring this note to whoever it is that prepares such for you. You must eat, at minimum, two times a day from a plate at least as large as the palm of your eunuch’s hand.” Ralturs signed the parchment and poured a bit of yellow wax near the bottom before sealing it with his signet ring. An image of two cupped hands—the Divine Healer’s mark—was imprinted in the wax. “We shall reconvene next week to see if further intervention shall be necessary.”
I released my breaths all at once. Note in hand, I nearly sprinted out of the examination room. As usual, Pashzak and Laude waited for me just outside Ralturs’ door.
“What’s this?” Pashzak asked, gesturing at the note.
“Why didn’t I see Gavmars?” I breathlessly asked.
“You were requested to be seen by Ralturs, my Lady,” Laude replied. “By whom, I cannot say.”
“Do you know?”
“I cannot say.”
I sighed, handing over the note. To Pashzak, I replied, “Nothing. It will resolve within a week.”
“I shall take care of it while you complete your examination, Lady Dahlia,” Lude said as he started us toward the outdoors. “Your statue was delivered yesterday evening. I’m told the priests are thoroughly intrigued. Luckily, yours shall be the last performance of the day.”
“Lucky? Why is that lucky?” Pashzak asked as we walked.
I cast him a look. If he was joking, he didn’t seem like it. “The last to go always remains freshest in the audience’s mind.”
He looked surprised. “The Divine Scholar blesses us every day, I suppose.”
We made our way through the Inner Court’s grid of buildings and gardens into the Lunar Court’s spotless grounds. Laude escorted Pashzak and me to a rose garden near the Water Gate. Five priests clothed in deep blue waited between the bushes, all huddled around my statue. Before going to them, I turned to Pashzak and Laude and stated sternly, “Return here—right here—by midday. The odds of meeting the Duchess again are against me.”
“Of course, Lady Dahlia. And please—don’t wander off again, if you can help it.”
Pashzak only nodded.
With a deep breath, I approached the priests. The eldest amongst them, a crooked fellow with a wide, flat nose and bushy beard, asked me, “Name and speciality?”
“Lady Dahlia of Limhoriò, Örös, specialising in metalweaving.”
“Good, good. Please, come closer.” He gestured me inward. “This is simply—simply marvelous, my dear Lady Dahlia. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Simply fascinating. But we must be certain it was made by your hand,” he said. “Have you any way to prove it? Your craft is simply impeccable.”
I cast my eyes upon my artwork. Deciding what to sculpt had been easy. From bronze, I had created a life-sized woman; thin-faced, long-necked, lush but well-kept hair swept into an updo complete with ribbons and a headdress, which had taken the most time out of anything to sculpt owing to its detail. She wore an aizņika’s camisia and stole. Her dalmatic bore nickel segmentae and showed three oleander blossoms turned out to face the viewer. In a word, it was marvellous. One of my favourite pieces.
“Of course I can,” I said to him. “If you wouldn’t mind stepping back—I’ll need some room.”
All five priests gathered off to the side.
I closed my eyes and breathed deeply, thinking of all that statue represented, and softly bent at the knee one, two, three times before spinning around slowly, controlledly, carefully. Violet light flooded my veins as Essence crept into them. I reached deeply into the metal and poured it in. My spin complete, the statue began to mirror my every movement.
The priests gasped and startled.
I danced the Lapedis, a folk dance traditionally performed by a pair of women. Together, my statue and I were beautiful. We wheeled and spun, whirling and twirling, a cacophony of movement and emotion. By the time the dance was done, the priests had edged close enough to us that I could feel their warm breaths against the light summer air. I let the statue harden once more. Frozen alongside it, I drew in more breaths to still my fluttering heart.
The priests whispered amongst themselves, glancing at me every so often, then back at the statue as if expecting it to come alive once more. I awaited their verdict with a faint and patient smile.
“Might you be a daughter of Winter?” the crooked priest asked. “So inspired. You must be connected to the metal in some profound way, or have incurred the Divine Caster’s blessing. I’ve never seen nor heard tell of any uzņika specialising in sculpture, nor one who can weave metal as you do.”
“A daughter of Autumn, Your Holiness,” I replied.
“Either way, no questions about it, it’s a blue seal for you. May we...keep your statue through the end of the month? We only mean to study it and perhaps display it in the Divine Caster’s shrine.”
I blushed. Laude told no lies. They genuinely loved it. “I would be flattered.”
He gave me my seal and spot of ink, then sent me on my way.
I waited for Pashzak and Laude in the rose garden, each breath a sigh of relief. That was, by far, the easiest examination of them all. The priests were nothing like the Collegium Ministers—bitter old men who never had a word of kindness to say, only criticism, and who always made sure to tell you that your actions were not good enough. Lady Moss worked herself into a panic once after having performed a beautiful folk song before them—every note hit, each one pure—but was yet bitten at to the point of tears simply for the unmitigatable sound of her own voice. Even worse were the instructors from the Brisia House of Mantids who had come to teach us The Dance of the Flurries for Her Majesty’s Cobalt Jubilee; Ladies Agate and Ruby, who never wasted a moment in which they could tell us how useless and ungraceful we were. Indeed, I believed we did less dancing and more standing still being dressed up and down in their presence, which surely did not help our odds of moving into the third phase when it came to the Jubilee performance.
“Lady Dahlia?” I heard Laude’s voice ask.
My head shot up and I jumped. “Divines, you startled me!”
He frowned. “My apologies, my Lady. It’s just that your group has been called by Lady Agate to rehearse during today’s downtime, and we must leave now if you don’t want to be late…”
I grimaced but followed, wondering where Pashzak had run off to now, or if he even knew where we were going. And, that night, after another exhausting rehearsal, I ate a very filling supper of warm berry sauce on buttered toast, a small cup of mushroom soup, and a fistful of almonds. As I drifted off to sleep, the passing thought that the Duchess might have made the request for me to see Ralturs put a smile on my face. Perhaps she was still thinking of me.
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