MARROW: CHAPTER ONE, SCENE THREE
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
SEVEN more days passed before I tread on solid land. My legs, in the meantime, seemed to have forgotten how to walk. Artis laughed at how I tottered down the gangway, stumbling across the dock like a newborn deer. He instructed me to wait right where I stood for his sister, Rutgita.
I watched the crew unload the Swell Dancer’s cargo, listening to their work-song. After what seemed like ages, Rutgita appeared on the top deck, gesturing wildly at someone I couldn’t see.
“You come down here this very instant or I’ll carry you off the ship myself!” Rutgita shouted over the din of bells and shanties.
I shifted my weight from foot to foot. Had someone else been on the Swell Dancer the whole time? Why hadn’t I seen them before? I lowered my gaze in case Rutgita caught me staring. The last thing I wanted — or needed — was for our second meeting to end as poorly as the first.
A piercing shriek nearly made me jump out of my skin. My head shot up. Rutgita storming down the gangway, eyes locked firmly on me. She strode over, snatched my arm, and pulled me back onto the ship.
“Your shipmate has decided to make her disembarkment inordinately difficult for the three of us and now we shall be late,” Rutgita said.
My eyes were frozen wide in terror. “Where are you taking me?”
“To talk sense into her!” she snapped. “Obviously the whelp speaks Candrish, yet she insists on pretending that she cannot understand me. You have until the count of fifty. If she refuses to listen, Divine Ancestor help me I shall teach you both the meaning of misery.”
She thrust me toward the ladder to the cargo hold. I descended quietly to find a tiny girl with a shock of bone-white hair huddled behind a stack of wooden barrels, crying softly into her hands. I knelt down.
“Hello?” I asked. “What’s your name?”
She ignored me. I drew a calm breath. “Have you ever been on a ship before?” Still, nothing. My heart thumped. I wasn’t sure what was left to teach me of the meaning of misery, but I had no desire to find out. I doubted such a lesson would help her in any way, either. Slowly, I reached out to put a hand on her shoulder.
“Don’t touch me,” she snarled.
I held back and prayed Rutgita lost count and would have to start again.
“She’s waiting for me to bring you out and will punish us if we don’t go,” I said. “I don’t know how to help you, but for your own sake, please, let’s just go.”
“Have you seen that scar?” She asked. “Nobody gets a scar like that because they do good things. They brought us here to make slaves of us no matter what Artis said. I feel it in my heart.”
“We aren’t slaves. We’re his daughters. Besides, there’s nothing for us in Kandrisev.”
“Yes there is!” she shouted. “Just because you were alone doesn’t mean I was.”
My ears grew hot. “Who said I was alone? I had friends, too, but Artis brought us here for a reason. We should at least find out why and decide if we want to stay afterwards. It’s better than…than…” I searched for powerful words. “Than digging ore for the Red Queen or burning dead bodies. Whatever it is, it must be better. It has to be.”
“You don’t know that. What if they beat us? What if we become the fifth wife of Yanaslanas so-and-so? What if they sell us to a brothel? What if we’re here to be concubines?”
“You don’t know if any of that is why we’re here either,” I said. “Please, just go to the docks. Even if it turns out he wants to make us slaves, we can escape. Together. We’ll figure out a way to get back to Kandrisev.” Unsure of what to do, I brushed my thumb down my nose and showed her my palm. A traditional greeting. Starting again at hello might help. “My name is Marrow. I waited ninety days to get off this stupid ship. Please, let’s just go.”
“Marrow.” She snorted. “Well, Marrow, you can go wherever you please — alone. I’m staying right here.”
I threw my hands up. “Why are you being like this? I’m trying to be nice to you. Leave! Please! Or else we’ll both—”
“I see this is going nowhere.”
I jumped up. Rutgita stood behind us, eyes narrowed into razor-thin slits. I put my head down and shut my mouth.
“We are late. The later we are, the less I desire to waste my time helping the two of you. If one stays behind, so does the other. Truly, it is in your best interests to do as I say before I find it necessary to involve my brother.”
“She thinks we’re here to be made into slaves,” I offered. “Maybe if you told her what we were here for we — ”
“Perhaps if you did not presume to tell me when to divulge information, we would not waste even more time.”
I shrank back.
“Zhanna. Arise immediately,” Rutgita barked.
Still, she refused. My heart pounded in my throat. I considered pulling her up myself and dragging her away, but I doubted I’d be strong enough. I avoided looking at Rutgita, though she glanced back and forth between the two of us like a fox considering which hare it wanted to wrap its bloody maw around. When I finally mustered the courage to speak, Rutgita put a hand out to stop me.
“Right then. Artis shall hear about this. Come, Marrow,” she said.
I looked back at Zhanna before following Rutgita up the ladder. She sat unmoving. At least she no longer cried.
Limhoriò Harbour proved a confusing mess of wharves, docks, barrels, crates, raunchy sailors, and harried deckhands. Hundreds of hands and elbows bumped me around as we wove in between crews and cargo. When we reached the threshold of the city, I found myself disoriented in the midst of a baffling arrangement of colourful stucco homes. Wiry trees broke through the paving stones at random, none of them much taller than me.
“You are now in the city of Limhoriò, Örös,” Rutgita loudly announced. “It is the third-largest city in Örös and the traditional winter home of the ambassador from Maj Melidi — that would be Artis if you are unaware.” Rutgita deftly slipped along the path.
Further inward were dirty streets lined on either side by mud-brick insulae. Hardly a fingerbreadth of space existed between most of them; midden piled up in the wider gaps, blocking them completely.
We finally reached a large and open forum. Örösi bluebloods bustled between market stalls, carrying baskets heaped with goods, some pushing two-wheeled carts stacked with the same. Brightly dyed headscarves held down with circlets and decorative pins adorned every head, billowing behind everyone like flags.
If Rutgita spoke again, I had no way of knowing. Mules brayed, merchants heckled, and the wind rushed past my ears with a fierceness I recalled only in my most distant memories. I followed her closely. We walked straight across the forum, past more bright houses, to a winding road that stretched past fields of newly sprouted sorghum and millet sown across verdant hills.
A warm breeze ushered along. Eastward, a magnificent estate crowned an enormous hill — toward which we appeared to be walking. We ascended via several flights of mossy stone stairs cut into the rock, stopping before an ornate gate cut out of a high wall. I turned to look back over Limhoriò, hand over my brow to block out the sun. For all my worry about the place, Örös looked…pretty. The air smelled sweet, the sky a deeper blue than Örösi blood, the sea a great mirror reflecting the puffy clouds above.
Rutgita unlocked the gate and stood aside, waiting for me to enter.
“Is...is this your home?” I asked in a small voice as I crossed the threshold.
She held out an arm to stop me. “What? Speak up. If you insist on chattering, ensure you can be heard.”
My chest buzzed. “I asked, ‘Is this your home?’”
Rutgita stared at me. “How do we address our elders in the Empire?” she asked.
Wide-eyed, I stammered out, “I don’t know.”
“Serkana.” Rutgita said.
The way it was spoken felt...wrong. Serkana. Ser-kana. I repeated myself, tacking “Serkana Rutgita” to the end, trying to walk ahead so I didn’t make us even later.
She held me back. “No. Listen to me. Serkana Rutgita. You best begin learning High Brisian now, as you are wholly expected to become fluent before the year ends. Say it again.”
I took a deep breath. “Ser-kana Root-gee-tuh?” The unimpressed expression she wore told me that still wasn’t correct. Inhaling to calm myself again, I tried, “Ser-kahnah Root-ghee-tah?”
She raised her arm. “No. This is not my home.” Before I could ask any more questions, she stalked away.
A winding, shaded path took us between hedges, small round buildings, and statues. My, the statues. They were exquisite. Each woman they depicted seemed so real I knew they had to have been encased in marble. I let my knuckles brush against one as we passed, fully expecting to feel warm skin. At stone’s cool kiss, I frowned.
Finally, we arrived at the villa’s entrance. Giant stone bowls at either corner burned sweet-smelling wood, bathing the ground in white smoke. Enormous columns wrapped with multicoloured ribbons flapping in the wind supported the extended ceiling.
“Now,” Rutgita said. “We are extraordinarily late. Do not expect any more courtesy than you have afforded Lady Pearl, who shall be responsible for you during your time here. After inspections, you shall be left in her care. No, before you ask, she is neither my nor Artis's sister — rather, his employee. Both of you are bound to the great House Melidi: Maj Melidi if you wish to sound educated. Remember it is a privilege to be here. You shall not embarrass Artis. You shall not embarrass me. I don’t know what they teach you about family in Kandrisev, but know this: I am here to ensure you are brought up as an educated, cultured young woman. I am not here to be your friend. Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes, Serkana Rutgita,” I said.
She unlocked the door. My fingertips tingled and my chest trembled like a leaf. This…this was truly foreign. Exotic. Exciting — but so very unfamiliar. Dangerously, I thought that perhaps this could even be the start of a much better life than I deserved. Perhaps I was the luckiest of luckies. I’d never kill another butterfly again. Brazenly, I smiled at Rutgita without a hint of fear or submission. No matter what, I would make the most of everything I had been given.
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