MARROW: CHAPTER SIX, SCENE THREE
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
WE ARRIVED in Maj Impozars as the first rays of sunlight pierced the horizon at dawn on the twelfth day of Spring, year forty-four. At the end of the gangplank awaited two litters and four grey-cloaked men beside each. I descended and climbed into the nearest one.
Once seated on the cushioned bed, I drew the pale blue curtains and shivered. My breaths puffed out in little clouds against the early spring chill. The capital was much farther north than I anticipated. It wasn’t until I found a map one day whilst deep in the throes of boredom that I realised if we sailed just twenty days north and west, we would have arrived in Nilova.
Thankfully, it did not come to pass. My last four weeks aboard the Swell Dancer weren’t much better than the first, although I was finally granted the gift of acknowledgement from my shipmates. Pashzak and I attempted conversation only twice more, each time as gruelling as the first. Nothing I asked him to tell me was something he could divulge — or so he claimed.
Without warning, the litter-bearers lifted the bed and ambled away from the docks. I stuck my head out to make sure Artis and Pashzak followed. Sure enough, the former sat in the second litter, wrapped in a sable cloak and matching hat.
“Morning, Lady Dahlia,” Pashzak’s voice came. “Sleep well?”
I glanced down to see the flat top of his hillwalker-hide hat. “Fine, thank you,” I replied before sitting back. I closed the curtain again and shut my eyes, squeezing them in hope it would quell the pounding of my heart. Every step further was a step closer to my ultimate fate: Uzņika Impozars, or nothing. There was no further practicing or worrying to do. From now until my judgement day, I would be scrutinized, studied, tested, probed, inspected, and assessed by experts in every possible field: dance, voice, instrumentation, poetry, calligraphy, history, philosophy, language. My stomach fluttered at the mere thought of them, but it also churned excitedly; these examinations could not be so easily duped. Unless Artis had his hand deep in the pockets of the Imperial Artist’s Collegium, it was now that my worthiness for the title uzņika could truly be appraised. Though my stomach flipped and my heart pounded, I couldn’t help but smile. Now was the time to prove my worth.
After what seemed like the whole day had passed without so much as a dip in pace, I pulled the curtain open a hair. We fast approached a long, flat bridge on the shores of a vast lake. Dense forest which bled onto snow-capped mountains in the distance surrounded us completely.
I let the curtain fall back into place and stilled my breathing. The bridge was far too low. If the lake flooded the water would swallow us; if the wind blew too hard, we’d be pushed off, sunk into the murky-blue depths. The litter-bearer’s pace quickened. The nearer we drew our destination — which could only be Old Brisia, the Imperial court — the louder our surroundings.
“Open the gates!” Someone bellowed.
I flinched and yanked open the curtain. Stone walls so tall they seemed to lift the sky stretched as far as I could see to my left and right. Hundreds of guards wearing blue sashes and armed with pikes stood at equal intervals on either side of the gate: two enormous wooden doors that, when closed, created a high-relief carving of a sixteen-petalled marshflower surrounded by a laurel wreath.
“Glad you’ve decided to join us,” Pashzak quipped. “This must be the Cardinal Gate. Magnificent, isn’t it?”
I took in my surroundings, looking left and right and up and all around as I had the first time the Powdery mistress let me inside the butterfly hutch all those years ago. Everything that could be painted was. Every stripe of the rainbow and then some colours coated the walls, the columns, the signposts, the street various vendors’ stalls. Directly ahead of the Cardinal Gate rose an domed shrine encircled by immaculate lawns amongst which men of the cloth walked. Behind it rose a stout but wide building that, had I been told it was the case, I would have wholeheartedly believed was the Empress’s palace. Men dressed in fur capes and multicoloured, circular caps bustled to and fro.
At the shrine, the litter-bearers turned right. Massive, bare trees arose in precise formation along the boundaries of the park through which we walked. As we approached the courthouse, which sat against what appeared to be the back wall of the complex, I noticed another ornate but smaller gate with a crescent moon carved out of its doors to the far right of the wall. We passed through it. This, I assumed, was the Lunar Court: half the size of the Outer Court and filled with religious buildings. A massive statue of each member of the Divine Household guarded the rear of nine smaller buildings, all of which encircled a central temple. Beautiful gardens planted with dormant fruit trees, shrubs, and the sprouts of early spring flowers lined the three border walls.
“Lots for you to study,” Pashzak commented.
I kept my eyes on the road ahead. We approached a gate carved to resemble waves in the sea. From here, our path straightened. This section of Old Brisia contained many, many more buildings than the Outer and Lunar Courts, but no less abundant vegetation. We moved along the outer wall until we reached a multi-storied mud-brick building coated in crimson paint. The litter-bearers halted and lowered me. I stepped out on my own, ignoring Pashzak’s outstretched hand. Out of nowhere, a gaggle of bald men robed in light blue descended upon us and ushered Artis, Pashzak, and me inside. Compared to Artis’s seaside villa, this one appeared to be downright modest. Yet, gold gilt the ceilings, frescoes brought the smooth walls to life, and marble tiled the floor.
One of the bald men pulled away from the others and matched pace with me. “Lady Dahlia of Limhoriò, Örös?”
“Yes,” I replied as we carried on at no less brisk a clip down a straight and narrow corridor. “Excellent! How wonderful to meet your Ladyship. Our Empress has sent me to welcome Lady Dahlia to the Hall of One Hundred Petals, wherein your Ladyship shall be staying for the duration of the Imperial Examinations for Uzņika.” His voice was unnaturally high. “Her Majesty instructs that all examiness shall return here each day between examinations if necessary as well as for all meals and bedtime. Around a third of the examinees shall reside here; in fact, I believe your Ladyship is the last to have arrived.”
He paused while we ascended a set of stairs at the end of the hall. We came to a halt in front of the first door on the left. Everyone escorting us save the high-voiced man absconded. “Our Empress has reserved this room for your Ladyship. Today’s schedule is rather light. The genesi reading shall occur before nightfall. Until summoned, your Ladyship may do whatever she likes within the confines of her quarters. Should she have any questions, needs, or resolutions, Her Majesty has assigned me to assist in resolving them for the duration of your Ladyship’s stay in this Hall.” The man flashed both palms at me, then Artis, then Pashzak. “I am pleased to serve my Lady. I am called Laude.”
I flashed my palms to him. “I thank you for your brevity and candor, Laude.”
“Of course.” He pulled open the door. “After you, my Lady.”
The room was miniscule — no bigger than the pantry at the Butterfly House. Only a plain cot, table, wardrobe, and chair awaited me inside. The window, a narrow slit in the back wall, looked out into a shaded courtyard filled with budding trees. I looked back at Laude. He was rather short, very thin, dark-grey-skinned with undertones of deep blue with drooping, pointed ears. The barest hint of wrinkles creased his face. His eyebrows had either been lost or shaved. “Well then,” Pashzak said in Candrish as he plopped down on the chair. “How do you like this?”
“Will all of us stay here?” I innocently asked Laude.
He shook his head. “Her Majesty has invited all male relatives of the examinees to stay in the Hall of Fellowship. If I may inquire, who are either of you to her?”
“Her father,” Artis stated.
Laude eyed him, glancing briefly at me and back to Artis before asking Pashzak, “And you?”
“Older brother and guardian,” Pashzak replied in broken Brisian.
“May I see your documentation?”
Pashzak produced the vellum roll from his cape pocket and handed it to Laude. He took his time reading it before tightly rolling it and stiffly returning the note to Pashzak. “Very well, Serkun Pashzak. You shall stay on the lower floor of the Hall of Fellowship with the other guardians. Someone shall bring both of you here before each of Lady Dahlia’s examinations so you may escort her Ladyship to each assessment. You may, of course, take meals and leisure time with her in this Hall should you so desire. However, Her Majesty requires that all non-examinees exit the residence by moonsrise regardless of relation.”
Pashzak happily nodded, though Artis wore a kink in his jaw that radiated displeasure. I went to stand near the wardrobe. “Will my luggage arrive soon? I’d like to freshen myself before my genesi is read.”
“I’m certain someone is transporting it as we speak. May I offer my Lady a tidbit of advice regarding garb while the topic is ripe?”
Artis cut in as Laude began to speak. “I will take my leave now. Good luck, Lady Dahlia. Pashzak,” he barked with a stern look.
“Farewell, Serkun Artis,” Laude said as the two exited the room.
“As you were saying, Laude?” I asked.
“Of course. The court astrologist works in tandem with the Imperial Physicians to, if I may, begin ‘thinning out’ the examinees. I humbly suggest wearing something loose and uncomplicated. Trust that there shall be many opportunities in the coming months to dress as your Ladyship is used to.”
“That’s very sound advice.” I sat on the cot. A yawn clipped my next sentence; my muscles begged for me to lay down and sleep. But, not wishing to be rude, I asked, “If I may ask, what is…or what was this room for?”
Laude smiled. “The Hall of One Hundred Petals formerly housed the Second Imperial Consort. Her Majesty has abstained from their services and His Grace employs many fewer consorts than his predecessors. Indeed, his harem numbers less than ten. The First Grand Ducal Consort resides in the Hall of One Thousand Gems, as Her Highness will become the First Imperial Consort next year; the Second Grand Ducal Consort preferred the Hall of Sweet Fruits to this Hall, so it was converted to accommodate guests.”
“And what about the other seven?”
“They reside together in the Hall of Imperial Service.” Laude made a face. “However, I beg my Lady to rest assured that although the name is preserved, your Ladyship is highly unlikely to cross paths with a consort during the examinations. The lives of consorts and artists are entirely separate.”
I let my eyes linger shut when I yawned a second time. I didn’t want to open them again. “Thank you, Laude. You’re very knowledgeable. While I do enjoy your company, would it be alright if I napped before my genesi reading? I don’t sleep well at sea and our journey was long.”
“Of course, my Lady, but before I go, would you mind another brief bit of advice?”
“Go ahead,” I said as I shifted the downy pillow against the wall.
“Your Ladyship is in charge of myself and may also command the other eunuchs within reason. We are here for you. No one here shall take offense if my Lady asserts herself rather than others.” He opened the door and stepped out. “Sleep well, my Lady.”
I pulled off my slippers once he shut the door and laid down. If I wanted to emerge from this examination whole of body and sound of mind, I would need every tidbit of advice Laude could possibly give me — but I also needed rest. The sun had barely reached its zenith and all I wanted to do was sleep. So, I shut my eyes and tried to think of happy things.
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