MARROW: CHAPTER SEVEN, SCENE FOUR
Updated: Feb 11
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
WHAT OCCURRED DURING THE FIRST PHASE OF EXAMINATIONS?
The Twelfth Day of Spring, Year Forty-Four of the Fifth Era of Paltran Emperors
AS THE astrologist promised, the first week of examinations consisted solely of etiquette lessons. I spent every waking moment from moonset to moonrise learning to identify various members of the Imperial Court, the proper forms of address, rules of propriety, and hundreds of other minute edicts of decorum before a final examination before Her Majesty’s ladies-in-waiting during which we demonstrated, in groups of ten, what we had learned. Once released from the mire, the two-hundred-and-fifty of us granted passage given a rough schedule of the remaining phases: the first would mirror regular licensure examinations with detailed assessments proctored by relevant court officials to thin our numbers to the hundred best; from them, Her Majesty's staff would select twenty-five uzņika to endure a second, more rigorous set of examinations, which included rehearsing for a performance at Her Majesty’s Cobalt Jubilee in Winter; and lastly, the third phase—the one which made my stomach churn—for which Her Majesty would select her ten favourite uzņika to live and work in her personal service until selection day. On the fifty-fifth day of Autumn, Her Majesty would finally grant five titles: Uzņika Zmalis, Uzņika Brisia, Uzņika Maj, Uzņika Serkunus, and Uzņika Impozars. I could accept no less than perfection from myself if I expected to make it past the first phase.
My literacy and calligraphy assessments saw me sent onward with a yellow seal on my documents—good, but not good enough. After sufficiently proving my ability not only to read and write but to make my words pleasing to the eye, the lower-ranking scholars in the Hall of Fellowship informed me to prepare for an oral examination before seven Fellows of Classical Literature. It was known to all that one of Her Majesty’s favourite pastimes was to ponder the works of the ancient greats; anyone in her service had to be capable of the same.
On the twenty-seventh day of Spring, Laude came to my room with breakfast and a warning: my oral examination was to occur at midday and that some of the other uzņika had been expected to compose a short original work in front of the Fellows. Writing had never been my forte. Most uzņika never penned great literary works—the exception, of course, was Lady Jade; one of the first of our kind and author of the epic The Marsh-Wife. Some three hundred years after its ink had dried, her work still enjoyed recitations and theatrical productions galore. I finished my breakfast as soon as Pashzak arrived, and the three of us left for the Hall of Fellowship not long after that.
When we arrived, several harried associates of the Hall seated us on long benches arranged in what appeared to be a central study hall outside the main library and archives. Fifteen other uzņika sat ahead of me. As I watched the associates scurry about, I wondered what they would rather be doing. The Hall of Fellowship was home to the second-largest library in the Empire, second only to the Library of Blackwall in Maj Qoda, and they would surely rather be reading that herding uzņika onto benches. I looked to my peers next. None of them looked nearly so nervous as I did. Having had Lady Primrose for a literature tutor, I was more than confident in my breadth of knowledge on the subject and my ability to recite, but something about the musty air or the hardness of the bench or the dimness of the room even in daylight flung me into a terror I could only wring my hands to soothe. If the Fellows asked me to pen an original work in front of them, I did not doubt that I wouldn’t leave the Hall with a red seal.
The uzņika ahead of me came and went: two with green seals, one with yellow, four with black before I stopped paying attention. Finally, one of the library doors opened and I heard a thin, airy voice call, “Lady Dahlia of Limhoriò, Örös.”
I stood, bid Laude and Pashzak farewell, and strode with my head held high into the examination.
The library’s interior was breathtaking. The assessments conducted by the lesser Fellows had taken place in a different part of the Hall; seeing the enormity of the cavernous library, I had to wonder why. What must have been millions of scrolls and codices were chained to shelves so tall and densely packed I couldn’t begin to imagine what the Qodan library was like. Some of the shelves were hidden behind thick panes of frosted glass, others shuttered in cupboards, and yet others fastened by heavy chains of iron to wooden tables battered by decades of use. At the largest of these tables sat seven bald men clad in yellow, all of them old enough to be my grandfather. In front of each Fellow laid a wax tablet, reed pen, and a pitcher of water. The Fellow in the central seat—the only one to wear stripes of blue on his golden cap—also possessed a large bowl filled with what looked like slips of parchment. I flashed my palms at them as I approached.
“Name and origin,” the blue-and-gold Fellow said in a creaky voice.
“Lady Dahlia of the Limhoriò House of Butterflies in Örös.”
“A pleasure, to be sure. I am Vice Principal Fellow Adgarus Esterys Maisars Traulas Vestrys Kleintas Majai Badaitis.” Sitting back in his chair, he continued, “My colleagues and I shall conduct your examination in the following manner. I shall draw, at random, three slips of paper naming three distinct works, which you shall recite before our panel. These works may be an excerpt from a play or an opera, or they may be a poem, monologue, or passage of an epic, or you may by chance be assigned to write a short original work. All works contained within the drawing apparatus are within reasonable bounds of common knowledge for a woman of your learnedness. If the work drawn is yet unknown to you, I shall draw two more slips at random to replace it. If you are unable to recite any of the nine possible works, you shall receive a black seal and continue to your next examination. If assigned an original work, you shall have a thousand-count to write it.” He lifted and set down an hourglass hidden behind the bowl. “Your oral examination will assess the following dimensions: enunciation, emotivity, accuracy, and comprehension. After you recite each work, three of us shall ask you one question each so that we may evaluate your competency in the latter dimension. Are the rules of this examination clear?”
“Yes, Vice Principal Fellow.”
“Vice Fellow is fine.” He dug around in the bowl and withdrew a slip of paper. My breath caught in my throat as he read, “Variation on an Ancient Marsh Prayer by Serkun Anrodvars Majai Sietkods. Lucky draw,” he muttered.
I stifled a sigh of relief. This chant was so well-known children sang it to celebrate the first rainstorm of the year. I stilled my frantic heart and began my recital.
Water swells within the marsh
And fills our empty cisterns
The sky is sagging and dark
Fog rolls in, spreading far
It is the Ancestor’s tears.
Rain clouds, rain clouds
Float high above the sea
Bless us with joy and laughter
The reeds are wet with dew
Petrichor fills the air
Dance now, dance now
For the rain has come.
The Fellow remained silent for longer than I expected considering the length of the work. Seven pens scrawled across the wax. Finally, the Fellow seated at the very end of the table to my left cleared his throat. “What is the significance of rain in the context of early Great Marsh culture?”
“It symbolises the return of life after Winter’s end and the Divines’ promise of health and longevity.”
The scholar copied down my entire response as I spoke.
“Give three settings, whether temporal or physical, in which it would be appropriate to recite this chant,” the Fellow seated next to the previous asked.
“On any day in the month of Rain, during the Feast of Aspa, or, of course, at my patron’s request.”
“If your patron were likely to be confused as to the meaning of the word “petrichor,” what word might you instead replace it with?” asked the Fellow between the Vice Fellow and the last.
Ah. Their first trick question. “Tampering with the words of greater minds is impolite, therefore I would simply explain its meaning at my patron’s request.”
“And its meaning?” the same Fellow asked.
“The scent of rain on dry soil.”
Once they finished recording our exchange, the Vice Fellow withdrew a second slip. “Go Sail Ye Far Along Blue Waves by Serkana Vainere Ambrisia.”
My heart stumbled over its next beat. “I don’t know it.”
“Fylja and Ralsilars by Serkun Mauvrys of Pietagjai.”
Another blessing brushed with fear. I clenched my fists tightly beneath the long sleeves of my stola to stay my terror’s gnashing teeth. Fylja and Ralsilars was as standard a comedic poem as anyone could find. Any uzņika worth her title knew it by heart.
Within the harem of an Emp’ror old
The consort Fylja took his heart ahold
Infatuation served the pair no rest
So Ralsilars, his tutor, made protest.
No Emp’ror wise lets conquered lands stagnate
Nor lets his soldiers rampant raze and rape
Thy homeward flower is in bloom of late
And thou art obligated to our state.
Aggrieved though certain Ralsilars spoke true
The Emp’ror from his harem soon withdrew
To greet his loyal wife and future heir
His heart no longer by Nokvis ensnared.
Enraged by meddling hands the consort bold
Devised a plan for retribution cold
Attending lectures in seductive garb
And calculating queries rife with barbs.
Ralsilars feignèd smug disinterest
Yet could not help but keep his mind abreast
So flustered by her charm he did adjure
His lectures ruined by her shrewd allure.
O Fylja, pained am I to beg of thee
If I may even dare to broach this plea
Inside my purse there waits a hundred gold
For thee, this night, if we could dare enfold?
Thou shalt forgive that I remain unsure
How can I know if thine intent is pure?
Devote thyself in earnest now to me
Or I shall not indulge this fantasy.
My Fylja, thy condition I shall meet
To mine own bed we’ll bind my hands and feet
and surely thou shalt see, my lover sweet,
that unto thee I dole no grand deceit.
Once bound the tutor called for her to lie,
but his intentions she had e’re denied.
Despite his pleas, she drew the drapes aside
and laid bare to the Emp’ror all his pride.
It seems despite thy knowledge and virtue
Comeuppance harsh was longly overdue.
Untie the knots, my Fylja, and no more
shall he invoke the wrath of woman scorned.
After a while longer than it took them to record their notes for the first recitation, the middle Fellow to my right asked without looking up from his tablet, “What, if any, religious allegories are present in this narrative?”
The ghost of my younger self resolved to write Lady Primrose a letter of profuse thanks for her unceasing insistence that it was not enough to simply know the classics, but to understand them. I replied, “Fylja is commonly accepted as a reflection of the Divine Trouble Leine, who has long plagued mortals with the vices of hedonism, lust, and overindulgence. Fylja likewise is considered by most to embody the seductive nature of femininity—another characteristic of Leine. Ralsilars, of course, represents Kasignis the Divine Scholar; in one of his most famous legends, he was seduced by Leine and cursed with carnal knowledge. Depending on whom you discuss the poem with, the Emperor represents either Nokvis the Divine Lover or any mortal man succumbed to Leine’s wiles. Serkun Mauvrys explicitly references the Divine Lover by Her holy name, though it is arguable that this was in direct reference to Fylja rather than the Emperor.”
The Vice Fellow’s steely eyes lingered on me while his colleagues wrote. When they were finished, he lifted his reed pen and wrote furiously in the wax for long enough that the Fellow to his left asked before he finished, “Which character, in your opinion, deserves the most blame for Ralsilar’s humiliation?”
All of a sudden, the Vice Fellow quit writing and folded his hands in front of his tablet, turning his full attention to me. I swallowed. “Ralsilars himself, I suppose.”
“You suppose?” the Fellow asked.
“Ralsilars?” the Vice Fellow said over top of him, voice steeped in incredulity. “Explain yourself.”
A thin rivulet of sweat slid down my spine. “In my opinion,” I began, “Ralsilars humiliated himself. In the second stanza, he no less than accuses the Emperor of neglecting his duties to spend more time with Fylja, whom he clearly loves. The fifth and sixth stanzas along with the eighth and its following line show Ralsilars enacting the very same dereliction of duty he accused the Emperor of making in the name of lust, not love, and with one of the Emperor’s own consorts, no less.”
The Vice Fellow leaned forward and asked in a low, measured voice, “Have you considered the fact that in the fourth and seventh stanzas the consort explicitly forsakes the Emperor’s favour to complete a petty seduction of a man who, by all means, was justified in warning the Emperor of the mental disease caused by the consort’s ‘lush allure?’”
The other Fellows recorded our words as we spoke. “The ninth and tenth stanzas prove that Fylja never intended to actually seduce the tutor, but to humble the man who not only saw fit to act as the moral authority on the Emperor’s activities but the man who was willing to pay an Imperial Consort to lay with him. What’s more is that line thirty-five through the tenth stanza implies that the Emperor was aware of Fylja’s plans, or else why would the Emperor of Brisia have been hiding behind the drapes?” I breathed. “Fylja loved the Emperor. The Emperor loved Fylja. Ralsilars parted them and tried to fulfill his own selfish needs. Stanzas four and seven do not make Ralsilars any less of a hypocrite,” I said before I fully considered the implication of what I was saying.
The Vice Fellow sat back and considered me while the others wrote, twisting the end of his stylus on his chin. A faint, smug smirk lifted the edges of his thin and sagging lips.
My heart beat in my throat. That was a ridiculous position to have defended before the audience I stood in front of, even if it was what I had come to believe over the years since I learned the poem. I knew the answer they really wanted was Fylja, or even better, Leine. If the Vice Fellow took my answer for insult—which, in consideration of his smirk which had faded into a squinting, narrow-eyed sneer, seemed to be the case—I might as well have plucked out my own eyes. My answer was never intended to be a judgement on scholarship as a whole, nor on the Divine Scholar or Serkun Mauvrys. The poem was written over a century ago. Even if it did recount real events, which I and anyone with a working mind earnestly doubted, those portrayed were long since dead anyway.
When the other scholars finished recording, the Vice Fellow stood and said, “For your final recitation, I shall be asking each of the comprehension questions.” He drew a slip from the parchment bowl. “Krauvars’ monologue from the second act of Zagnouv.”
Confusion flashed over the face of one of his colleagues, but he buried it in his wax tablet. Krauvars was such a minor character I doubted anyone who hadn’t portrayed him knew the monologue by heart. I clenched my fists. “I don’t know it.”
The Vice Fellow drew another slip. “She Sailed Across Far Shores to Wander by Serkun Ottovian Majai Niusau.”
I’d never even heard of the author, much less the work. In fact, it sounded like a folk song, not literature. The Fellows sitting to his right exchanged concerned glances but said nothing. The one pretending to be busy writing on his tablet glanced up at me before casting his eyes down again. Gritting my teeth, I replied, “I don’t know it, either.”
“Oh? Not that one either?” he asked with a mocking frown. “Then may the Divine Artist Herself intercede on your behalf for your final drawing.” The Vice Fellow swirled his hand round and round within the bowl’s depths for an almost comical length of time — comical, if his intentions were not so obvious. His vacant green eyes locked with mine, he withdrew his hand and, without even reading the slip, announced its verdict: “The Lady of the Reeds by Grevs, abridged by Serkun Kurdrars Aimah Bleiklins.” Smug smirk flooding back onto his lurid face, he crossed his arms and asked, “Is this a work within your grasp of knowledge?”
Ko-fi allows you to make a one-time donation to help support my work, while Patreon allows you to make a recurring monthly donation of $1, $3, or $5 with additional perks such as advanced chapters or bonus material (such as old drafts). Thank you kindly for your support!