MARROW: CHAPTER SIX, SCENE ONE
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
DESCRIBE YOUR VOYAGE TO MAJ IMPOZARS.
The Fortieth Day of Winter, Year Forty-Three of the Fifth Era of Paltran Emperors
ARTIS did not speak to me for thirty-one days. Not at breakfast the day our voyage began, not when we embarked, not after we settled into our cabins, not when we passed by one another — not even so much as a nod.
For the first ten days, I was unbothered. The indignity of it all still seared beneath my skin and the lack of distractions afforded me ample time to prepare myself for what laid ahead. If the seas were calm, I spent my time in my cabin practicing various arts: singing, the lieve, the flute, calligraphy, storytelling, recitation, and, of course, sculpture. In rougher waters, I clung to my cot with a bucket squeezed between my legs, too sick to string a coherent thought together, much less hold a conversation. I dare say I began to welcome the silence — until, however, I realised that his fury had forced the silence of everyone else.
Not even his slaves would speak to me. If I requested food or drink, they retrieved it without a word. If I asked questions or bid good morning, they pretended not to have heard. The crew were worse. A deckhand plowed right into me as he made his way across the upper deck one morning as if I were nothing but another part of the ship. Of course, he never deigned to apologise. Pashzak at least had the courtesy to grant subtle winks and quick nods. Unfortunately for me, he was a habitual creature of the night. Our brief encounters mostly took place on my way to bed and his way to do whatever it was he did in the dark.
After four whole weeks of naught but my own thoughts to keep my company, a gnawing fear that all of this was a long and vicious dream slowly poisoned my mind. When the world stopped feeling real, I took to pinching my thighs. The slight crush of pain kept me tethered to reality, but not for long. When that, too, began to feel imaginary, I used a thin rod of bronze from my sculpting kit and rapped myself with it when the feeling became too much. At first, I kept to my thighs. That became my upper arm, then my wrist, then my knuckle. The morning after an especially fraught day, I awoke to find a bruise so large and dark I was certain I’d broken my hand.
All at once, my mind’s eye was battered by the worst imaginings of what would happen if I arrived in Maj Impozars only to be declined for a physical flaw wrought by my own hand. I thought about tossing the rod overboard, but I needed every scrap of metal I brought to practice with. Neither could I very well report my abject stupidity to the physician without further inciting Artis’s wrath — or the Chobortsriya’s. I was forever thankful that she protected me by revealing a glimpse of her hand, but in the wake of that fleeting revelation came the knowledge that her threats were not made in jest. No matter where I ran, no matter to whom I turned, the Chobortsriya could and would find me. She wasn’t some petty landowner or greedy merchant prince. Chobortsriya Elgana Yolkerev, my patron, was the Yellow Queen of Chariv. A woman of her eminence could have chosen any uzņika she so desired to do her spying and snitching—but she chose me. I had no choice but to arrive in Maj Impozars in the best possible condition, fully intact and alert, even if that meant living in a seasick dream.
So, I ate poppy leaf tablets to dull the pain and hid my hand until the bruise paled.
As the fourth week of silence neared its end, my days grew torturous. I didn’t need Artis to speak to me. I needed anyone aboard the Swell Dancer to say something, anything, to prove that I was not forgotten. I began singing along with the crew’s shanties. Every time, they abruptly stopped and continued their work in silence. I sang myself hoarse trying to force their hand, belting louder and louder until no one that wasn’t deaf could claim my voice went unheard. Everyone I came across — crew, slave, Pashzak, even Artis himself — I greeted cheerily and with gusto even though my words were little more than wind in their ear. Sometimes I’d walk along with them and have a full conversation without a sound ever passing between their lips. It was only after I began standing at the ship’s head in full costume, reciting monologue after verse after opera scene from the time I awoke until I could no longer stand, that some of the crew finally cracked. Glances, snorts, smirks, and glares abounded. One sailor even clapped at the end of my recitation of the poem Fylja and Ralsilars.
After several days of these performances, one of Artis’s slaves stopped me before I could begin and said, “Serkun Artis has asked me to request your presence in his cabin immediately.”
Triumphant, I followed her away.
As I had come to expect from Artis, he spared no expense in decorating his quarters. Gold fixtures, brocade curtains embellished with alternating triplet moons, an ebony desk and chair, and a feather mattress with silk sheets atop a teakwood frame filled out the room in a fashionable, if not showy, display. Despite its glamour, the cabin couldn’t have been much bigger than the powder room at Artis’s seaside villa. With that in mind, the room seemed stuffed.
Artis stood behind the desk fiddling with the lock on a small, plain chest that rested on the tabletop. I took a seat before he asked me to.
“I have arrived.”
He grunted and jiggled the key a little harder.
“I imagine we’re here to discuss what occurred at your villa?”
The lock clicked. Artis unhooked it from the chest, set it aside, and rested his hand atop the lid, expressionless.
“What?” I innocently asked.
“As someone who has spent the last four weeks in silent contemplation of her behaviour, I assumed that by now you would have accepted your fault and done your best to avoid provoking me further.” His voice was low and measured.
I smiled, though I wasn’t happy. “What, you think I forgot what you did?”
“What I did?”
“You threw me to the ground and called me a whore in front of my patron — not just my patron, but the bleeding Yellow Queen of Chariv!”
Artis rubbed his temples. “Now, you may have been given a good shake, considering the fact that you were hysterical, but I did not throw you.”
“Lady Dahlia, that is absolutely ludicrous.”
“You — ”
“Were you crippled? Maimed? Broke a bone, bruised, scratched? Not a single head on your head has been harmed — a little shake is hardly anything to work yourself into a frenzy over. You and your sisters are not treated poorly. Indeed I believe you are treated very well. Other daughters, good daughters, are treated far worse by their fathers for far, far less.”
“Good daughter?” I scoffed. “When have I ever been anything less than — ”
“Do not twist my words. My meaning was clear: other men treat their daughters, even the ones who don’t deserve it, very poorly. I will not play semantics games with you.”
“Semantics games like how you didn’t throw me but I ‘may have been shaken?’” I snapped.
He glowered. “The two are not alike and I refuse to be maligned. Your recollection is simply untrue. If a little shake and some harsh words—hardly the end of the world—are enough to keep me in your bad graces weeks after the fact, I hardly think I’m to blame for your misery. If you feel you were mistreated I never intended for that to happen, but what did you expect me to do? Sit idly by in complacency while you destroyed your body and sullied your reputation before you even had a reputation to speak of? No, I think not. Something had to be done.”
I pressed my lips into a thin line and glared at the floor, a hornet’s nest abuzz in my chest and a lump slowly creeping up my throat.
Artis opened the chest. “I am sorry I had to be the one to end the madness, but I hope you can understand my utter and complete mortification that the Chobortsriya — the ‘bleeding Yellow Queen’ as you so eloquently put it — had to witness your puerile fit. Imagine how you looked to everyone else in that room: maniacal.”
I considered leaving, but I had nowhere to go that would be far enough away from him. I folded my hands in my lap and watched as he withdrew several scrolls, two thin codices, and a few loose rolls of vellum.
As he laid them neatly on the desk, he said, “We could have avoided these last few weeks in their entirety if you could just accept that sometimes life won’t go your way.”
The cabin door opened. Pashzak, who looked as if he hadn’t been awake for days, sauntered inside, the word “Morning” on the tail of his yawn.
“It’s nearly lunchtime. You’re late.” Artis beckoned him forward. “Come retrieve your documents.”
“And why am I here?” I tersely asked.
Artis adjusted the cant of the codices. “You are nineteen. In Örös, you are considered an adult. In the mainland, that privilege is granted at age twenty-one. Being that you are likewise female and unmarried, you are required to be accompanied by a guardian at all times.” He selected on of the vellum rolls and extended it toward Pashzak. “This is your official grant of guardianship signed by myself and Serkun Agbardas. Do not lose it. Any member of the Imperial staff, no matter their rank, can order you to present it at any time.”
Pashzak slid off the cord wound around its middle, unfurled it, and skimmed. As he read, his eyes widened. He turned to Artis and asked with a solemn face, “You’re going to castrate me?”
Artis glared at him as Pashzak broke into a wide grin. “Enough fooling around. From now on, you are to play the role of Marrow’s blood brother. This will eliminate the need for such measures. If I made you a eunuch, no matter how convincing that may be, your mother would have my head on a platter. Furthermore,” he said while glancing between Pashzak and I, “you will only speak Candrish to one another from the moment we disembark. If anyone asks, Pashzak, you can read Brisian but not speak it. Am I understood?"
I looked Artis in the eye. “I’m an uzņika. We are exempt from guardianship. ‘Bodyguard’ and ‘guardian’ mean two very different things.”
His lour rivalled Rutgita’s iron gaze. “The laws of the mainland are many and complex. I don’t expect you to understand. Regardless of your impressions, Pashzak is henceforth your brother and will accompany you wherever you go. You will converse only in Candrish. I will not repeat myself again.” Artis snatched up the remaining vellum rolls and one of the codices and stuffed them into my arms. “Go. Study these. I’ve had your genesi altered to complement the Empress’s. There are other items of import the contents of which you must be able to recall under pressure before we make landfall.”
I sprung up from my chair so quickly one of the rolls slipped and fell to the floor. “Why am I just now finding out about this? And I barely know the man and you want me to call him my brother?”
Pashzak swooped down and back up, vellum in hand, and laid it atop the stack with a helpful smile.
“You may add that to your list of items to study,” Artis said as he sat.
I turned heel and stormed away, clutching everything tightly so as not to let anything else fall lest Pashzak feel the need to keep the precious flower from breaking her stem by bending over to pick it up herself. I descended the ladder to the lower deck, kicked open my door, and threw the vellum and codice on my cot in a heap. Slamming the door shut, I sat on the floor with my back against it and did my best not to dissolve into a puddle of tears and mucus.
What an oaf. An ankle. A jackass. A lawless son-of-a-bitch. A selfish, disgusting, hideous excuse for a father. By my estimate we wouldn’t make landfall for a further four weeks. I could not stand the thought of spending one more precious moment of my life aboard the ship with that man on it. He did not deserve to be called “father.” He deserved to be called what he was, but I couldn’t think of a word vile or descriptive enough.
I buried my face in my knees, arms wrapped tightly around my legs. The Chobortsriya witnessed him throwing me. Pashzak did, too. The Chobortsriya thought it enough of an outrage to reveal her true nature to me. Did a Queen outrank the second son of a House Patriarch? Judging by the way Artis cowered before her, I chose to believe she did.
Moreover, I knew what he did. He threw me. He called me a whore. I had a lump on my skull and an ache in my head. Besides: no matter how he felt, I must have done something right by shearing my hair and piercing my face. The Chobortsriya adored it. She called it genius: utterly and without equal. Of the two opinions, it was hers I chose to believe.
I didn’t want to acknowledge the question that slithered so nimbly into my mind. The very thought flushed my face and clenched my jaw. No matter how much pain I felt, this was all worth it. The very thought that it wasn’t clawed at me like a vulture’s talons against a fresh carcass. Without this, I had nothing. Less than nothing. This was everything to me. Everything. Artis had no idea what he had given me by bringing me to Örös. I could use my metalweaving—not only use it, but make it my trade. No doubt existed in my mind that I would be dead or dying if he hadn’t bought me from the Powdery, but that was just the thing: he bought me.
I made enough maugat from my debut alone to vanquish a quarter of my debt. Just one of my statues sold for almost twice the entirety of what Artis spent to make me an uzņika. I was seventeen—if not the youngest uzņika to earn the title, without a doubt the youngest to do so in the last fifty years. I was so wealthy Örösi men quaked at the thought of lowering themselves to patronize an uzņika worth ten times what their treasuries could hold. My formal examinations were without question a sham, but I was still good enough at what I did to pass for an uzņika who had taken them. The Chobortsriya never would have let me leave the shores of Örös otherwise. All this because I wanted it. Because, to me, all of this was worth it.
I raised my head.
Lady Dahlia of Maj Qoda made a name for herself through sheer willpower—it wasn’t a nobleman’s daughter who earned such renown. Hardship never stayed her course and hardship had never stopped me before. So what if no one spoke to me again until we docked? So what if I was called vile names, shaken, tossed around like a sailor lost in raging waves? I was Lady Dahlia of Limhoriò, Örös. Soon, I would be Lady Dahlia of Sieviedua Impozara Ozelyga Maj Paltra Maj Impozars. I was the luckiest of luckies, privileged to be nezhdoya, and if I could be bought, I could be sold.
“Are you going to fail, Marrow?” I whispered to myself.
“No.” I collected myself from the floor and strode to my cot. “I am going to succeed.”
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