MARROW: CHAPTER ONE, SCENE TWO
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
RAHVESK being landlocked and the Powdery never giving us leave to explore, I never had occasion to embark on so much as a fishing boat, let alone a vessel of the size Artis Melidi owned. It was simply enormous. Artis's scribe, who had collected me from the Powdery, and I had to walk across most of the city to reach the wharves that stretched far enough into the Abyss to accommodate the vessel’s size.
The mainsail and topsails were dyed a most eye-wateringly vibrant shade of red. A carving of a woman holding out her hands as if to offer a bouquet of flowers adorned the bow. Oddly, I felt scared of her, though the threat she posed was minimal at best. Did all ships in the Empire affix figures to their bows?
Artis's scribe ushered me aboard. At the top of the gangway awaited a small, mousy woman dressed in a strange white undergarment that covered her neck and arms completely, overlaid with a plain red stola. Her hair and ears were hidden underneath an equally strange cap.
“This is Glaune,” Artis's scribe said. “She has been assigned to attend to your needs for the duration of your voyage aboard the Swell Dancer. Mind that she does not speak Candrish.”
My heart gave one loud thump. “What does she speak?”
“Forgive me for not keeping detailed notes on the languages spoken by each of Serkun Melidi’s slaves,” he sneered. “Away with you,” he gestured for us to leave.
Glaune led me below deck. Scores of boxes weighed down the hold. Filled with what, I could not say. She brought me to a tiny room on the opposite side of the Swell Dancer. All it held was a cot, a footlocker, and a chamber pot. I set the burlap sack I carried on the floor and said “Thank you” to Glaune, the sentiment of which she seemed to glean. With that, she left me to my own devices.
The voyage from Nilova, Nezhlovyad to Limhoriò, Örös took ninety days. I was not allowed out of my cabin often, and on the rare occasion I was afforded the gift of fresh air, a thick shroud of fog always seemed to roll in across the Abyss. If there was no fog, it rained.
Some of the crew were Candrish, but every time I tried to speak to them Glaune appeared from nowhere and ushered me back below deck. I heard snatches of orders and shanties that offered a vague idea of where we were sailing. I knew we had to sail northeast at first to get around a massive island I knew as Korchak Uyrtsroyu. In its native Brisian, it is called Maj Impozars.
Not long into our journey, Glaune came to let me roam the top deck. The water was smooth and the skies clear as glass. All I could see in any direction were the rolling cerulean fields of the Bluedark Abyss. It was precisely what I wanted, but I found myself locked in such a throat-clenching panic at the thought of never again seeing land Glaune had to carry me back to my cot. To her credit, she didn’t just leave me there but held my hand until I could breathe normally again. I launched question after question at her despite knowing I wouldn’t get an answer. What if we sank? What about pirates? What if a storm came and swept everyone overboard? What if the cargo hold flooded? What if the barrels fell over and rolled away to squish me in my sleep? What if I drowned? What if the wind swept us off course? What if I wanted to go back?
When we turned sharply east, the Abyss turned into a churning, swirling pool of seething foam. Seasickness became my reality. After just one day of rolling and tumbling in eastern waters, saltwater splashing across the upper decks to rain down on me in my cramped cabin, I knew I had had more than enough seafaring to last my entire life. It rained for weeks straight.
Outside of Glaune, I hadn’t spoken to anyone at much length since the voyage went underway. Certainly not Artis, whom for all I knew wasn’t even aboard the Swell Dancer. Even Artis's scribe seemed to have disappeared. After three years of working all day, every day, the forced idleness was beginning to drive me mad.
Some days, I’d take all my belongings out of the footlocker and lay them out on the floor, turning them over and over in my hands just to have something to touch: a stained hemp blanket; one wooden doll, faceless and missing an arm; a weighty iron nail smuggled out of my room; sandals woven from seagrass; and, of course, the patchwork sack I used to bring everything aboard. All my worldly possessions, worth less than five tadril combined.
Other days, I’d sing to myself. Many times the melodies were familiar but the lyrics so far away in my memory I wasn’t sure if the songs were real or imagined. Most children’s songs of the Empire recount tales of pirates and Seadweller cities nestled deep beneath the waves. Rahvi music spun tales of the steppe and its windswept grasses, the smell of dirt and sunlight, the safe shelter of a yurt and the happiness settling down for the season brought. While we had no songs from the Abyss, we did have stories about rain. My mother once told me that rain was the gods’ tears. It crossed my mind once or twice that they might be weeping for me, stuck in this little floating prison, but I quickly let go of that fantasy. Gods don’t cry over the plights of mortals.
Deep into our voyage, I was laying on my cot with my hands over my stomach to quell its ache, singing a song about the gods’ tears, when the words slowly faded from my mouth. A sudden feeling of estrangement divided my heart from my voice before I could speak the next verse. The meaning seemed so disparate from my self that the words felt unnatural in my mouth.
Rain pattered on the top deck. It did not soothe me. I had no choice but to accept what I knew but had until that moment ignored: I was never going home.
The next few days I spent in silence.
We hit a rough patch of sea, which only served to worsen my seasickness. The same evening, though we had passed into calmer waters, I leaned over the side of my cot to vomit for the third time in a row. Moments later, two sharp raps came at my door. I didn’t bother acknowledging it, knowing it was most likely Glaune coming to check on me. Hopefully, she had the foresight to bring a bucket. When the door opened, I glanced up to greet her.
“Ah, Marrow,” Artis chirped. “Rough journey, neh?”
I dragged myself upright to greet him properly. When I saw the woman standing behind him, I found myself caught between revulsion and awe. She looked precisely as I would imagine Artis as a woman. Everything about them matched: the silver-blue of their hair, their grey eyes, their complexion and even their noses — but cut across her face was a scar like a mountain crag. It looked the worst on her cheek, where it seemed someone had carved a pit into her flesh with the teeth of a comb.
In spite of it, the longer I looked at her, the more enthralled I became. Unlike Artis, she wore a dark buttoned mantle, which hid her figure. Her long hair was pulled taut into a severe bun that rested just above her right shoulder. Worst of all, she looked as if I had just fed her bitter cherries.
“This is Marrow?” she asked in a voice medium in pitch and rich in timbre.
I started to speak, but the aroma of her perfume — myrrh and musk — made me wretch. Vomit splashed across the floor.
Artis grinned and shook his head, but the woman cast me a look of disgust and stalked away. He left, too. I began to shake, worried I had offended him, but he returned not long after with Glaune, who brought along a bucket and some rags.
“Seasick?” He asked. “That’s unfortunate. Well, I had intended to introduce you to my sister today, but that ship seems to have sailed.” He grinned.
I didn’t trust myself to laugh, so I cracked a weak smile instead.
He studied my room for a moment before holding his hand out to me. “Come. Let’s give her some peace and see if a little time above deck won’t calm your stomach.”
We ascended to the top deck. I hovered near the mainsail, though Artis motioned for me to come closer to the handrail. Wary of falling overboard, I crept closer until I could grasp his hand.
“This is your first time on a ship?” he asked.
I nodded, glancing over the water. Four boats followed not far behind.
He must have seen my panic, as he chuckled and said, “Those are hexaremes — part of the Melidan Navy. They’re escorting us to Örös.” He pointed at each. “That’s the Salitus, the Scourge of Glaunys, Azlimortas’ Folly, and the Valtorandys. There’s not much to fret over out here. The Swell Dancer is well known throughout the Melidan Archipelago. Any pirate who sees it knows better than to attack.”
“Is Örös in the archipeg...archiplela—” I huffed. “There?”
He shook his head. “Much further south. We’re nearly there — one more new moon away at most, I think. Speaking of Örös.” He folded his hands and leaned forward. “My sister Rutgita is usually the one who explains why I chose you, but I suppose that duty falls on me today.”
I looked at him. The sun poked out from behind the clouds, blinding me.
“You’re quite young, so there’s not much use in metaphor. In Kandrisev, they call you ‘nezhdoya’, yes? Are you aware of its meaning?”
“Not my own,” I said.
He chuckled. “Well, yes, but I was thinking about the practical meaning of the word. Are you aware of what function nezhdoya serve because they are not their own?”
“To get adopted by blackblood nobles so they can have a son or daughter to marry foreigners whose blood is a different colour.”
“Alright, that’s close enough,” he said. “And why are certain children chosen to become nezhdoya instead of others?”
I thought for a moment before admitting, “I don’t know."
“Normally, you would marry an important man with a hemotone other than black. Perhaps a whiteblood from Ålsia, or a redblooded Rendroxjan man. Since most patriarchs desire to keep their hemotone pure, it’s a hard bargain indeed to arrange marriages between hemotones, even in one’s own country. So, one needs an edge. In Kandrisev, nezhdoya are selected because they have some desirable physical trait or a special skill.” He paused. “Do you know which applies to you?"
Suddenly queasy again, I sat down and weakly bleated out a "No."
"Well, you'll turn no fewer heads, being in the latter category. Your hair is black, thick, and glossy, teeth neat and sharp. Nose suits you well, but you're not unusually pretty. Chances are you'll look entirely different in the next few years, anyway. You're still a child."
I scrunched up my face. "Are you saying I’ll grow up to be ugly?"
He guffawed. "Of course not! But I do believe it is best to play to your strengths.”
"And I'm not a baby," I said with an edge of indignance. "I'm just small for my age."
Artis shook his head, still chuckling to himself. "Small or not, you sure as water is wet are not fifteen; at most, thirteen. But it doesn't matter. A young nezhdoya is better for me than an older one. It's not a matter of your age, either, it's a matter of being lied to. It makes one wonder what else is being hidden." He gestured toward the mainsail. "Do me a favour and stand over there."
I made my way there. He produced a thick copper bangle from the pocket of his red-and-gold vest. A streak of verdigris blurred the edges, leaving greenish smears on his slate fingertips.
He held up the bangle for me to see. "Now, I believe we both know what it is that makes you special, if not your beauty."
I blanched, frozen to the spot. Somehow, he knew. Before I could beg him not to, he lobbed the bangle as hard as he could across the deck.
Essence and fear flooded me. Violet light illuminated my veins like tiny rivers under my skin. I threw my hands up to shield my face. The bangle liquefied in midair. Without really knowing what I was doing or how, I twisted it into a ball and held it hovering in front of me. The Essence faded from me, though my heart still thrashed against my ribs. The ball descended like a lead weight and thudded onto the deck. My breaths came hard and fast.
Artis nodded approvingly and stepped forward. “Not many trained casters have reflexes so naturally fluid. You hardly had to move. Aside from all that, most natureweavers work with air or land; rarely, fire, and seldom water. You, Marrow, weave metal. Do you understand? What I paid for your adoption was an embarrassingly low amount considering the talent you wield.”
Hot tears budded in the corners of my eyes. Nobody was ever supposed to know. I was metalweaving when the hunters caught me near a stream. Every day at the encampment, they put me to work mending chainmail. When I arrived at the Powdery, the mistress said I’d be sold to the Red Queen’s armoury to make weapons for her army. When the Rosehearts came for me, I refused to cast. I kept my Essence stuffed inside no matter what they threw at me, what they beat me with, how long they whipped my feet to get me to show them what I could do. For all they knew, I was broken. I vowed to never cast again. When they threatened the Powdery, the mistress insisted it was the hunters who lied. They showed up dead on our doorstep the next morning.
Once, when it had been so long since I cast that the Essence leaked from my fingertips, Yevzhenya caught me stretching and bending a coin. She begged me to keep it hidden. Her brother was taken for less: a busker who set his fingers alight and made fire-snakes of thin air to entertain passersby. They sent him away to work in the Zoldoni mines until one collapsed and he died. Though I heeded her warning, I kept a single nail to bend back and forth, back and forth while everyone else slept just to keep my veins darkened.
“Don’t cry,” Artis said, bringing a hand to my cheek to wipe away a tear. “You’re in no trouble with me. There’s no danger here. Your mistress told me you were a gamble, but I liked my odds.”
“How d-did you kn-know?” I cried.
He knelt down to sit at my eye-level. “That doesn’t matter. What matters now is that you’re here, on this ship, headed to a place where your life will be far better than anything Kandrisev could have afforded you. A lesser man would see that and make a pit fighter of you. I, however, see a much brighter future for someone of your talents.”
I backed away. “Are you a sla-slaver?”
Artis tried to smile but looked worried instead. “You have nothing to fear from me. I have chosen what some may deem an unorthodox route in my life by having adopted you. I do insist you think of our meeting in Nilova as an adoption. Be assured I likewise have no intentions of marrying you to myself or any other Brisian.”
“Artis?” A woman’s sharp voice snapped. His twin sister’s face appeared in the window of an enclosed room near the aft of the ship. “What are you still doing out here? Sagdars urgently needs your assistance. Urgently,” she stressed.
Artis cleared his throat. “I enjoyed our little talk, Marrow, but I’m afraid I must attend this engagement. You can keep the bangle. Perhaps you can make yourself something nice to pass the time a little faster. Glaune should be long done cleaning your cabin by now.” He patted my head before walking away.
“But why did you buy me?” I called after him.
“Get below deck, please!”
I picked up my copper ball and went back to my freshly cleaned cabin. Sitting cross-legged on my cot, I sat the ball in front of me, determined not to let it tempt me.
But… if what he said was true, there was no reason not to play with it. No matter where it was he intended to take me, I was sailing far out of the Rosehearts’ reach.
He had even called it a talent.
When I felt safe enough, I gingerly picked up the ball and let Essence seep back into my veins. I curled it into a torus, a tube, a squiggle, a bracelet, moving my hands to shape it without ever touching the metal itself. When I satisfied myself with its form, I lifted the cuff I made and slid it up my bony wrist to rest on my upper arm. It was heavy. Plain. Devoid of any technique or hallmark of refinement and mastery. But, it was mine. Doubtless, too, the cuff was worth more than all the things I’d ever owned combined.
Quiet, I sat on the edge of my cot. The rain started up again. Not a slave, nor a wife, but a… what? A daughter? I didn’t know what to think. Artis clearly possessed immense wealth. Was he a merchant prince? A prince alone? And if I was his daughter now, what did that make me?
I bit my lip. Moreover, why me? Metalweaving was a rare ability, but if he had no want for a wife, he must have wanted me for something. A little niggling voice in the back of my mind promised me it wasn’t so he could know the joys of childrearing. I contemplated his reasons for the rest of the night, feeling no more sure of his intentions than I did when I embarked.
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