MARROW: CHAPTER ONE, SCENE ONE
SECTION ONE: THE BUTTERFLY HOUSE
In the Fifth Era of the Paltran Emperors
HOW DID YOU MEET ARTIS MELIDI?
Late Winter, Year Thirty-Seven of the Fifth Era of Paltran Emperors
I WAS eleven years old when Artis bought me. Older than most children the Powdery sold, but still young enough to turn a profit. Indeed, I have no doubt I yielded more riches for the Powdery mistress’ pockets than any other child she sold in years since.
Most children came in the front door and walked right out the back within a month of their arrival. To sell me took three years. Each of those days, I spent every waking hour catching butterflies and sloughing the glistering powder off their wings. Once my hands were thoroughly stained blue and green and yellow-orange, I handed my bounty off to the packers to turn into eyeshadows. The butterflies’ sacrifice earned my keep while the Powdery mistress searched for someone to sell me to. After all, that was where the real profit was.
Some might consider it a blessing to be able to work in a cosmetics manufactory. The mistress worked us until we could fall asleep standing up, but we were fed, clothed, and sheltered from the elements. After all, as she never failed to remind, other children were dying in droves in the Red Queen’s mines for the Yellow Queen’s war. Others were destitute, rotting from the outside in, living in slums and dirty gutters in walled cities that never took the time to notice them. Yet more were orphaned, abandoned, bastardized, enslaved, infirm. But I — luckiest of luckies, to some — had the privilege to be nezhdoya.
In Candrish, that word means “not my own.”
Iridescent dust stained my fingertips even as I sat at a wooden table in the dim, sparsely-furnished room where the mistress made sales. It was in this room that I first met Artis.
It was so humid that day my face-paint melted off my cheeks like candle wax. Our only tirewoman, Yevzhenya, had spent all morning perfecting it. To divide my lower lip, she painted a stripe of wet soot down its middle with her little finger. The upper, she filled entirely. My honey-gold eyes she lined with a wooden stick dipped in oil and kohl. Rouge, the last step, was expensive, yet entirely necessary. More oily soot worked in a pinch. In spite of its decay, I looked presentable enough. To be a good investment, I needed to be the image of perfect health. Any part of me that flushed was rouged: cheeks, forehead, the tips of my sloping, narrow ears, and my neck. It had to be black. Black, like my blood. My iron-grey skin needed to seem kissed by the Void.
While Vodmi, the Powdery accountant, spoke with Artis's scribe, I watched through the cracked door to glimpse Yevzhenya if I could. When she brought me to this room, she cried. For three years she watched over me, never quite breaking the mistress’ rules but bending them for my sake. A slice of bread here, an extra moment of sleep there, a trip to the docks to see the Abyss on a cool summer night. Through her tears, she had broken another rule for me: in her parting embrace, she whispered the word, “Sezha.”
In Candrish, there is no greater expression of benevolent love.
Artis's scribe cleared his throat loudly enough to make me snap my head toward him.
“She looks foreign,” he stated. To me, he said, “You are Candrish, yes?”
Dark-haired, ocean-skinned, blue-blooded, his watery accent betrayed him as by far the most foreign being in the room. Judging by the bronze torc hung around his neck, the scribe was enslaved by Artis and undoubtedly native to one of the Brisian Empire’s suzerainties. The scribe squinted at me before making another note in the codex flattened out on the table in front of him.
Vodmi released a nervous guffaw and wiped the sweat from his grey-skinned brow with a tattered rag. “Foreign can be good, can’t it? Exotic. Exciting. Foreign sells well in Solka.”
“We aren’t from Solka,” the scribe flatly replied. Again, he looked at me. His vulpine eyes narrowed. “Little girl. From whence do you hail?”
I looked at Vodmi. The Powdery mistress gave us all strict instructions to never speak with her clients under any circumstances. Brisians already refused to deal with a female nezhdoya trader, which was why Vodmi was sent to handle this transaction. She was livid over the indignity of it, and I had no intention of igniting her infamous temper that day or any other. If it weren't for the fact that Artis was Brisian, she never would have suffered the insult. For a foreigner to seek nezhdoya directly was unusual — and potentially lucrative for traders.
So, I sank into the folds of my grass-stained gown. A pin needled my spine. There was only one fancy dress to go around and fourteen girls for sale today. I was ninth in line and by far the smallest. Every available pin had to be used to keep the linen from slipping off my skeletal frame. To better conceal my undernourishment and the myriad patches on the skirts, the Powdery mistress had boarded up the window and lit just two lanterns: one near the door and one on the table.
The scribe huffed, squinting at me, then turned his attention to Vodmi. “Is she deaf? Dumb? Does she speak any Candrish at all? My buyer purchases nezhdoya solely of Candrish stock, in good health and sound of mind.”
“Apologies, Uyr, I don’t know why she’s like this. She usually yaps too much for ‘er own good.” Vodmi loured at me. “And she is homegrown Candrish. One of those Rahvi nomads. We took ‘er off some hunters ‘o said they found ’er near the Ochetski border.”
Suddenly, he pinched my thigh. I recoiled and glared up at him. The last girl that spoke in front of a client didn’t eat supper for a week.
“I am entitled to no honorifics and Brisians prefer to be addressed as Serkun, thank you,” the scribe said. “You will forgive our unfamiliarity with the intricacies of your…” the scribe flipped through his codex. “Charming countryside, but ‘Rahvi’ means nothing to us.”
“Central Candrish, some’ll say southern.”
“Excellent. Do these nomads speak Candrish? Again, a clear speaking voice is imperative to my buyer.”
“She knows how to talk. Can even say a bit in Vulgar Brisian. Girl,” Vodmi commanded. “Say something.”
I kept my mouth shut tight.
“Why you little — ” Vodmi twisted around on the bench and boxed my ears.
The scribe admonished him with a word in Brisian before warning in Candrish, “My buyer is loathe to purchase battered merchandise. Are you quite sure such barbaric measures are necessary?”
“The little shit knows how to talk,” Vodmi growled. “Talk, or I’ll give you something worse to yell about.”
His voice was muffled by the ringing in my ears. I lowered my eyes and said, “Small Brisian.”
Their strange language slurred across my tongue. Some think Candrish a harsh discordance, but to my young ears the elongated sounds of Brisian, vulgar or high, garbled every word one spoke.
“Was that so hard?” Vodmi asked. “There you go. Voice’s ‘bout as pretty as the sound of broken glass, but she can talk. Again, apologies. Wouldn’t’ve brought ‘er in if I knew she’d be this annoying.”
The scribe smirked while flipping further through his records. “At any rate, cadence can be taught, as can High Brisian. Better to teach her proper speech than rely on non-native tutoring. We have just a few more questions for you, if we may…” He traced his finger over his writing, turning pages and skipping lines. “Weight and height?"
“Three scores and five. Fourteen handbreadths.”
The scribe stopped writing at once. “Forgive us, but she looks to be quite a young fifteen. Are you certain of her birth year?
“The hunters brought ‘er here three years ago sayin’ she was twelve. If I ain’t mistaken, that makes ‘er fifteen"
I dared not utter another word. The nezhdoya hunters captured me when I was seven. They had held me at one of their encampments across the Zoldoni border for a year until it was safe to leave for Nezhlovyad. I had just turned eight when I arrived at the Powdery.
Vodmi’s gambit was risky, but there was an advantage to selling older nezhdoya. Too young and the buyer would have to wait a decade or more before their investment paid off. Nezhdoya older than twelve but younger than sixteen fetched the highest prices.
The scribe breathed in a deep, calming breath before saying, “Understand that my buyer is not looking to purchase — "
Vodmi cut him off. “She was born before the ban. They’re free and clear. I’ll swear it before a magistrate."
Inhaling, the scribe jotted another note in his codex. He shook his head, writing more, muttering something about the Blue Queen and civil war.
That was the reason I wasted away in Zoldoni Chovrekozh for a year before the hunters dumped me at the Powdery. Ever since the Blue Queen banned nezhdoya, Kandrisev had been at war — and Central Kandrisev bore the brunt of it. Nilova, the city in which the Powdery made its home, remained firmly outside the Blue Queen’s influence. In fact, Nezhlovyad as a whole had somehow managed to stave off the authority of all three warring queens: Blue, Red, and Yellow. So far east and so sheltered within the confines of the Powdery, worries of war coming to get me rarely disturbed my day.
Besides all that, Vodmi was lying again. Taking and selling nezhdoya was banned when I was two. Not once were nezhdoya born before the ban exempt from it. Not once. It took so long for the hunters to find someone willing to take me — not to mention to guarantee safe passage — because it didn’t matter when I was born or where; the practice was outlawed and that was that.
Sounding ever more tired, the scribe asked, “Alright. What’s her name?”
Vodmi scoffed. “Whatever you want. She don’t have one.”
My cheeks grew hot. Brow furrowed, I spit through clenched teeth, “My name is Marrow.”
Vodmi moved as if to box my ears again, but a sharp cough from the eastern wall of the room stopped him. A lithe man sitting against the wall in a high-backed chair cleared his throat and crossed his legs. Shadows and silence cloaked his face. The scribe paled and rushed to him, glancing back at me every few heartbeats. After scrawling more notes in his codex, the scribe returned to our table.
"My buyer wishes to purchase her and all her personal effects," the scribe announced. "In light of this, we need only sample her hemotone and sign the bill of sale."
Before I realised what that meant, Vodmi snatched my hand and pricked my thumb with the sharp gold-plated talon affixed to his forefinger. My blood glistened, so black it looked like tar. The scribe held out the codex. Vodmi pressed my thumb onto a carefully hand-drawn square.
After initialling next to my thumbprint, the scribe said, “Very good. As for negotiations — ”
“We don’t do those with them in the room,” Vodmi said.
Vodmi’s ears pressed against his head on hearing Artis speak. I simply watched him, curious to see what he said next.
“We are prepared to offer you three hundred magat.” Artis pulled a fat, jingling coin purse from inside his sleeve. “Half now, half upon her acceptance.”
Vodmi looked insulted. “Absolutely not. She’s worth twice as much tadril at least. No illness, no deformities, scars, birthmarks, still intact and very young. Besides, your coins are worthless here.”
“Forgive me for not having the foresight to carry your currency. I suppose there will be no deal, then.” Artis put the coin purse out of Vodmi’s sight. “Thank you for your time.”
As he stood to leave, Vodmi said, “Wait. We’ve been sittin’ on this one for three whole years. If you want ‘er, I’ll take your offer, but I want two-hundred-fifty whatever-you-called-’em right now.”
Artis came forward. His blueish silver hair caught the candlelight, though most of it was hidden under a round and flat-topped hat that looked more like a crown than a cap. His costume was no less strange: he wore a golden robe that reached his feet with some sort of blocky apron overtop and what looked like a blanket wrapped around his middle. Every conceivable fingerbreadth of fabric held some pattern or another. Like the scribe, his skin was slate-blue and his ears canted upward, though he looked far less world-weary and weathered.
“Deal. I’ll have one of my eunuchs bring the other seventy-five when they come to collect her. My scribe will take care of the rest.” Artis sat the purse on the table next to the scribe before taking his leave.
“Just sign here with the transaction amount notated.” The scribe held out his quill. Vodmi scratched out his name. Alongside the scribe’s flowing, lavish print, it seemed meaningless.
“Someone will send for her shortly,” the scribe said.
Vodmi waved me away. “Go on. Get your things.
As I made my way to the door, skirts hoisted halfway up my leg to keep myself from tripping, I glanced down at my hands. The pigments were rubbing off on my skirts, which would no doubt have garnered me a beating if I still belonged to the Powdery. At that moment, though my head churned with thoughts of what life I was being sold into, I felt the tiniest morsel of relief. No more butterflies would die by my hand. Yevzhenya would get a few extra coins as commission for helping my sale. Even if my time at the Powdery had been fraught with uncertainty, and even if I was not my own, at least I could no longer cause others pain. Whatever trials life the Brisian Empire held for me, I could always take comfort in those small mercies.
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