MARROW: CHAPTER TEN, SCENE ONE
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 THE FINAL MONTH OF EXAMINATIONS.
Late Summer through Late Autumn in the Forty-Fourth Year of the Fifth Era of Paltran Emperors
AS IF we were part of the same body, the ten of us moved as one, flashing Her Majesty our palms before kowtowing as Peridot had in the courtyard. We stayed low for an impossible length of time. Faintly, I felt the hem of a silk skirt brush over my fingertips. My heart fluttered. I raised my head just enough to catch the barest glimpse of a woman, the sight of whom made my bile curdle and head spin. Her clothing looked as if its maker had torn the fabric of dust to wrap her in its twilight. She was shorter than I expected, bent at the spine, but exuded an air of fortitude unmatched even by Rutgita.
“All rise,” her old but strong voice quietly commanded.
Again in perfect unison, we stood. I dared not watch her directly, but from the corners of my eyes as she walked the length of us and stopped in front of Viscaria.
“Who are you?” Her Majesty asked.
“Lady Viscaria of the Limhoriò House of Butterflies in Örös.”
“I believe I asked who you are, not what your name is.”
Viscaria stiffened. “Someone whose only wish since wishes came to mind has been to dance for Your Majesty.”
“Is that all?” Her Majesty waved her hand as if to ward off a fly. “So be it. Dance.”
No one dared move. Her Majesty moved on to Lady Buttercup.
“Who are you?”
“A young girl from a humble family desperate to please your majesty,” she said with a dainty bow of her head.
“I have a harem at my disposal if I wanted someone to please me.” Her Majesty moved on to Lady Barberry. “Who are you?”
“Uzņika Impozars, if Your Majesty wills it,” the uzņika confidently said.
“And if I don’t?”
“If I have offended your majesty I—”
The Empress’ voice cut through Lady Barberry’s like a sharp knife torn from clumsy hands, though she never raised it. “Who are you?” she asked Lady Sloe.
Her thin face was paler than milk. Utter silence was Lady Sloe’s reply.
I focused on keeping my breaths calm. Lady Geranium stood between Lady Sloe and me. I still had ample time to think of an answer. Who was I? Who was I? I stumbled over my own thoughts.
“What? Speak up. Who are you?”
“A-A musician who hopes she may be worthy of having her notes heard by Your Majesty’s ears,” Lady Sloe stuttered, kneeling as she spoke.
Panic bled through Lady Sloe’s every word. “A humble uzņika in awe of Your Majesty?”
“Is that a question or an answer?”
Her Majesty moved on to Lady Geranium, close enough now that the crushed-almond scent of her clematis perfume wafted into my nose. I drew breath from the top of my lungs, eyes cast to the ground. Who was I? I still had no answer.
To Lady Geranium, Her Majesty calmly stated, “My question should not be difficult. Four girls I have asked who and four girls have told me what. A musician is a what. Uzņika Impozars is a what. A humble child is a what. A wishful thinker is a what.” She crossed her arms behind her back. “So, Lady Geranium, who are you?”
Lady Geranium bowed her head. “I’m sorry, Your Majesty. I don’t know.”
“Listen,” the Empress commanded, pacing to the other end of the line. “Beauty and grace may have brought you to my doorstep but you shall not enter if you bring no true gifts to my House. Hundreds of vapid dolls have passed through this Court and thousands more will surely follow after my death, but while I breathe I will not have minds of air and ether in my presence. Do you think I wish to surround myself with even more puppets of scheming petty lords? This is not a difficult question. Now.” Her Majesty came before Lady Camellia. “Who are you?”
“No. Once again.” She moved on to Lady Olive. “Who are you?”
“One who hopes her voice can bring peace to—”
“No.” On to Lady Hibiscus. “Who are you?”
“A living work of—”
Her Majesty’s pace did not slow. “No. Who are you?”
“A virtuous—” Lady Mint started.
I swallowed as Her Majesty stopped in front of me, overwhelmed by the scent of her perfume and sheer enormity of her presence, as if the air around me had become a thick fog of smoke to ensnare me. Tongue stumbling over my own words, I waited for her to give the command.
“If you are incapable of answering my question, indeed you should be wondering why you are here,” Her Majesty stated. The words fell from her lips as an axe sliced through the neck. “Who are you?”
Time slowed to pulsate with every beat of my heart. I could think of nothing else to say, nothing that would give her pause. Trembling, I quoted, “Eternal shalt thou be so loved that men would conjure thee, but ne’er shalt thine own name be known no matter what thou pleas. Thou art the spawn of Leine, wicked Lady of the Reeds; be thou admired as thou yearn’d, but ne'er shalt thou know peace. Abandoned there in cold disgrace she called the Mother’s ear, and whisp’ring wished for Death’s sweet kiss upon her timeless years.”
Her Majesty stayed in place. “Explain.”
I swallowed. “I am the culmination of all who came before me and the sacrifices they made to get me here.” I resisted casting a glance to Viscaria. “We are all the Lady of the Reeds, the apotheosis of all the choices made for and by us until the day we die, innumerable and uncountable, who wear our names like masks so others may know us succinctly.”
Her Majesty looked down the line both ways. “The rest of you have seventy-two days to demonstrate why it is that you should be Uzņika Impozars and Lady Dahlia should not.”
I stifled a gasp as my heart threatened to break free of my ribcage.
“Ladies Barberry and Sloe are dismissed from examination. As for the rest of you, I pray the Divine Scholar returns your wits by morning.” Her Majesty turned and went back to her palanquin, at once surrounded by a gaggle of eunuchs.
The Mūsar thundered again, “Uzņika: bid farewell to your Empress.”
Our voices rose in one elegant “Farewell, Your Majesty,” as the same eunuch who delivered my costume this morning came to stand where Her Majesty had.
“These are your instructions for the final eight weeks of examinations. Traditional examinations shall cease at once and you shall spend your waking days in service to Her Majesty thusly: accompanying Her Majesty on daily walks; attending luncheon or supper with Her Majesty as you are invited to the west wing of the Palace of the Mother or, if weather permits, the butterfly gardens; attending daily rehearsals for Her Majesty’s Cobalt Jubilee this Winter; continuing your weekly health inspections with your assigned physician; and spending one day in total in direct, solitary service to Her Majesty according to the following schedule.” He cleared his throat. “This Summer: Lady Buttercup on the fifty-ninth day and Lady Olive on the sixty-eighth day. This Autumn: Lady Hibiscus on the fifth day; Lady Mint on the fourteenth day; Lady Dahlia on the twenty-third day; Lady Geranium on the thirty-second day; Lady Viscaria on the forty-first day; and Lady Camellia on the fiftieth day. The eight of you are now granted leave to return to the Hall of One Hundred Petals.”
As we came, we left. Once we were out of sight of the palace, I let myself smile; it soon faltered into a grimace as I held back tears, shaking my hands as if I had touched something hot to rid myself of the energy which consumed me. Viscaria was here. Her Majesty challenged the others to do better than I had done. Artis would have no choice but to be pleased. But in one breath, Her Majesty had marked me two ways. Five titles were available: only one of them Uzņika Impozars. I was a favourite, but also a target. Knowing what my own aides had done to keep me in the competition, such was a dangerous position in which to remain. By the time we arrived back at the Hall of One Hundred Petals, my chest buzzed and my fingertips tingled. Once we entered, our line became a blob. I slowed to match pace with Viscaria.
I said her name.
She ignored me.
“Viscaria,” I repeated.
She quickened pace, staring straight ahead with molten rage bubbling on her face.
“Viscaria, please, I need to talk to—”
Lady Geranium forced herself between us, stopping me in the middle of the corridor. The others filtered around us, trying not to look.
“Have you no decorum?” Her voice was dark and viscous. “Is it unclear that she doesn’t wish to speak with you? And how dare you not address her as Lady!”
“Get out of my way.” I tried to walk around her, but she reached out and snatched my arm. I gasped at the force and coldness of her hand and yanked my arm.
“Leave her alone.”
“She was my mentor.” I tore away and shot up the stairs. Viscaria was nowhere to be seen. All the tears I’d been holding in flooded down my cheeks at once. I burst into my room, startling Laude and Pashzak. The door slammed shut behind me, pacing in tight circles. Viscaria. Viscaria. Viscaria. She was here. Why her? Why not Larkspur? Why not Gardenia? Why not Hawthorn? I snatched a rod of iron off the top of my trunk and rapped my knuckles rhythmically. The dull thud of metal against flesh and bone turned my stomach even harder than it already churned. Viscaria’s dream was to dance before the Empress. Now I’d not only betrayed her, but humiliated her. I never said goodbye. This was her right. Artis lied. She danced so beautifully. I didn’t deserve this. Artis knew this would happen. I never had a chance to tell her. If only I had had a few more weeks.
Suddenly, I was caught mid-step, and Pashzak wrapped his arms around me, holding down my hands and wresting the rod from my grip. I tried to pull away, shouting, “Artis lied,” and dissolved into tears. I tried to speak, but my words were lost beneath months of hidden sobs. The door opened and shut, but Pashzak held me tightly.
“Sister,” he murmured, “Laude has gone for Ralturs. You must tell me what’s happened before he gets here.”
I struggled to stifle my cries. Every time they slowed, I thought of a new memory at the Butterfly House which rendered me speechless. Crying was stupid. Weak. I had to be strong even when no strength arose within me. The real Lady Dahlia wouldn’t cry. A real uzņika wouldn’t cry. But in that moment, I was weak.
When I finally spoke, my voice sounded like that of a haggard old woman. “She’s here. Artis promised I was the only one from Örös. He told me Serkun Domis had to pull strings. I don’t deserve this. I don’t deserve this. I shouldn’t be here. It should be her. It is her. It has to be her. I—I—I—”
Pashzak held me more tightly as the tears fell again. “Lady Dahlia, you must tell me who.”
I grew cold. “No. I can’t let you hurt her. Not her. I’d throw myself from the Cliffs of Duduos before—”
“Listen. Listen. If Artis lied, I need to know. Your patron believes the same—that you were sent here alone. Who is here?”
“Promise me you won’t hurt her.”
“Viscaria,” I whispered. “And if she dances for the Empress, I will never become Uzņika Impozars. The Chobortsriya will kill me.”
“She will do no such thing.” He shifted his weight onto the other foot. “Listen. Ask me to take care of the problem and I will take care of it. No one needs to be hurt. There are infinite ways to rid yourself of her without harming a hair on her head. Or, let the problem stand and we can deal with it when and if it does become a problem.”
I broke away from him. “You cannot hurt her!”
“And I won’t,” he insisted. “I don’t have to hurt anyone to get them out of your way and I’m frankly insulted that you think I’d choose to harm someone before using any other method of counteracting them. I’m not some cutthroat for hire. I’m here to protect you and your patron’s interests, not leave a trail of bodies behind.”
“You poisoned that food.”
“I did not. Lady Dahlia, this month is going to be difficult, and it will be ever more difficult if you’re this exhausted all the time. I haven’t said anything until now because I haven’t felt it was my place but you are running yourself into the ground. Please—you have got to relax. Not for me, not for Artis, but for yourself. You’re going to land in an early grave if you cannot find your center.”
“I don’t need a center.”
“I’ve gotten along just fine without one for my entire—”
“Have you? How many poppy leaf tablets did you eat today? Is that all you ate or did you eat real food without vomiting it back up again? How much water have you drank and how much sleep have you had? When was the last time you went to bed before the moons were falling from the sky? How are you going to get through this evening if you don’t know how to calm yourself down?”
I glowered at him.
“Lady Dahlia, please. Please, rest. Put all this out of your mind for now. You don’t even know if she’ll make it past tomorrow. She could recite the wrong lyric or wear the wrong colour, or just...piss the Empress off somehow and that will be the end of things.”
“You’ve never seen her perform.”
“But I have seen you.”
My heart thumped.
“Just…please. Try to get some rest. I tried to decline the Procurator’s invitation on your behalf but he refused to take no for an answer.”
“I don’t even have a gift for him.”
“He said you didn’t need to bring one.”
“Everyone says that but it’s the proper thing to do. They told us so the very first week.”
“Believe him.” Pashzak gave me a quick, sharp nod. “I’ll…I’ll be outside if you need me.”
My mind ignited with visions of shadowy dancers and war. Perhaps life would be better if Viscaria made it. If I lost, the Chorbortsriya would release me from my oath. Viscaria could be happy. I could be free.
The tiny voice inside my head laughed at the very thought. Freedom was a dream. Even if I was dismissed tomorrow, I’d still be here, in the Empire, far away from the Chobortsriya and very near Artis, whose rage would know no bounds. If I returned to Kandrisev in one piece, what could I even do? No such thing as my kind existed there. I had no other skills. Even considering the wealth I possessed, all money ran out eventually. That was to say nothing of the war. There was always the possibility that the Chobortsriya would not win. If she didn’t, the victor would no doubt look unkindly upon the face of a former Yellow Queen spy.
I swallowed. And now, I had to face Artis. Artis, and the fact that no matter how hard I tried to be a real uzņika, I would never be more than a greedy child who cheated and bribed her way into a life never meant for her. My own ambition disgusted me. I was a fraud. I deserved to be dismissed.
My tears ceased.
I could pray only for my fall to be swift.
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