MARROW: CHAPTER TEN, SCENE THREE
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
RUTGITA’S residence, the Villa Gladiolus, was by far the most tastefully and minimally decorated of either of her siblings and looked strangely permanent considering that as far as I knew, she was not a permanent member of the court. Stylish yet frugal wall hangings covered each wall alongside a tapestry here and there, and potted plants winged either side of every corridor; carvings and statuettes of famous uzņika and folk heroes dotted the various tables which hugged the walls—and then there were the codices. Hundreds and hundreds of codices and scrolls lined shelves so high a small ladder was needed to reach them filled the center of not one, but two separate rooms, arranged so aisles formed between them not unlike the library within the Hall of Fellowship. The smell permeated her façade of myrrh and dourness. Her maids, however, did not let me linger long; the brought me to the frontmost room on the left, after the libraries, which seemed to be a parlour of sorts. They left me inside. I sat on one of the deep blue divans sat before a stately low table centered inside. Ornate, gold-foiled screens and more plants decorated the room. The far side was open to the outdoors. Pillars wrapped with ivy supported the ceiling while thick, tall hedges blocked what I assumed were her private gardens from view. Not long after I seated myself, Rutgita entered from a cut between the hedges, stalking toward the table.
“I have many other engagements to attend to today. This shall be quick and painless. Answer questions if directly asked and remain silent otherwise.” She sat. “What did Lady Jasmine teach you about Her Majesty?”
My words tripped over themselves. This wasn’t what I had in mind when the Procurator said she would be giving me lessons. “I suppose whatever is known to most.”
“And that is?”
I searched through years of history lessons by Lady Jasmine’s adept recounting to find a suitable answer. “Her Majesty is the second wife of the late Emperor Horvas, Divine Ancestor guide him home, and is well-regarded by the citizenry for her precise and disciplined leadership.” I added, “She also has one son, the Grand Duke Tavars Maj Impozars.”
I sat on my hands.
“Listen closely and listen well. At this stage, your arts are no longer in question. You have sufficiently proven your worth the court as a potential Imperial Uzņika. But: your final placement is not solely determined according to how impressive an uzņika you are. There’s no use in saddling the court with dead weight. Everybody here is here because they are necessary. If it is truly your desire to become Uzņika Impozars, you would do well to ensure Her Majesty finds you not only impressive, but necessary.” She paused for a moment. “Her Majesty has one living son. His siblings were First Duke Petrys, Second Duke Edgandars, and Third Duke Klauds. The first two succumbed to the Plague of Spulai.”
“Plague?” I reached inward to the earliest of my studies. “Oh—that’s why they call her the Nightsinger, because of the plague. Lady Jasmine said her voice was said to be so beautiful that it woke the dead.”
Rutgita looked at me for a moment before answering. “Understand, Lady Dahlia, that regular patrons may find flights of fancy endearing, but Her Majesty does not tolerate foolishness. The Plague was more horrifying than you could ever imagine. Those afflicted rotted alive. Children’s flesh decayed as their parents looked on in terror and uselessness. Friends were forced to watch their companions putrefy and molder before death ate them whole. Lovers could not hold their partners as their skin blackened and cracked and their organs slipped out of the wounds.” She let her gaze wander from me to the outdoors. “Every night she sang to the dying and their mourners. Her voice was not beautiful. Indeed most find it desolate now that the crisis has ended, but not then. Not then.”
I bit my tongue. Perhaps wrongly, I had been comfortable enough with Rutgita to be honest about my lack of knowledge. Lady Jasmine only taught us what she thought was necessary for a gaggle of Candrish uzņika living on a remote island adrift in the South Brisian Sea to know. The idea that one of us might leave Örös, let alone vy for the title of Uzņika Impozars, was laughable at the best of times. There were so many others, so many more talented and dedicated and desirous others who truly wanted this for pure reasons—good reasons—Viscaria amongst them, and here I was, indolent and status-chasing. A spy. A traitor. A conspirator. A keeper at the gates preventing someone more deserving from taking the chance that was rightfully theirs by virtue of my mere presence. No. The least I could do was listen to Rutgita in earnest and tell her truthfully what I did not know.
“Lady Dahlia,” Rutgita suddenly said with a clarity that bit at my heart. “I agreed to advise you out of courtesy to the Procurator and for no other reason. I am not being compensated in any way for it, so the answer to this question is one I believe I am owed. Why?”
“Why?” I asked, heart thumping and mind racing.
“Why are you here?”
“I don’t understand the question, Serkana Rutgita.”
“To what end are you seeking this title?” She leaned slightly inward. “You shall forgive my candor, but not once would you have come to mind were I asked to nominate two uzņika from your launnal for these examinations. You relied wholly on my brother’s connections to find a patron. You never seemed motivated by competition or a desire for fame. By no means are you untalented, but you were invited here while you were still an aizņika, and that is a fact which no one, not even Lady Pearl, has been able to reconcile to me. What would have happened if the Collegium failed you? Who would have attended in your stead and why did Lady Pearl pass her over in your favour?”
Paralysis bound me as I searched for words in a sea of garbled letters. She did not know. Or, if she did, she was a prodigious actress testing me to some unknown end. Probably to report back to Artis weather or not I’d succumb to enough pressure. There was no good answer to give.
“I know my brother put you up to this,” she stated. “If I am to advise you, I am entitled to know why.”
I breathed in deeply but sloly so as not to show my terror. “Yes. Serkun Artis put me up to this. Without his insistence I would not have chosen this path, but I count it as a blessing that I did. According to him, my worthiness is reflected in my worth; that is, my debut alone earned enough to make me wealthier than a great deal of Örösi men. If that gives him confidence in my abilities, I have to trust his judgement.”
She stayed silent for almost as long as the Vice Principal Fellow had after my recitations. When she spoke again, her voice was no less icy. “Third Duke Klauds was murdered during the Akmuo-Dvogas riots. So too was First Duchess Horva Nauve, their first daughter.Second Duchess Horva Vaine, the First Duchess’s twin, survived the attack and was sent to live in Maj Qoda for her protection. She later wed Patriarch Azlimortas Maj Qoda, to whom she remains happily married. Grand Duke Tavars was born in Spring of the Twenty-Fifth Year of Paltran Emperors. Does this
Realization struck me like a bolt of lightning. “But the riots happened eleven years before then, the same year Her Majesty…was…crowned…but the others—the Third and Second Duke and First Duke Petrys—that means Her Majesty had to have been a—”
“Why do you think Houses Akmuo and Dvogas instigated riots?”
“Lady Jasmine said the death of Empress Gistasa—”
“Do not speak her name aloud,” Rutgita barked.
I recoiled. “My apologies, Serkana Rutgita, I didn’t know. We were taught that when Emperor Horvas’s...first wife died, the mourners spiralled out of control. But if Her Majesty was a — ”
“Seeing as you are capable of drawing your own conclusions, today’s appointment is concluded.” Rutgita stood. “If you know what’s good for you, you will never speak her predecessor’s name aloud regardless if it is in reference to another woman and never in Her Majesty’s presence. Good day, Lady Dahlia.”
She rounded the corner from whence she appeared before I could eke out a farewell.
Alone, I exited the way her maids had brought me inside, mind roiling with questions. Her Majesty was once a consort. Lady Jasmine had been wrong—or lied—about many things. Perhaps Rutgita knew why I was here. Perhaps she was part of the conspiracy.
I waited on the front stoop of the Villa Gladiolus for Pashzak and Laude to arrive, uncertain as to how today’s lesson was supposed to help me. I didn’t imagine Her Majesty much cared if we knew about her personal life. We’d learn more about her as an uzņika than we ever could from listening to others. Besides—Rutgita lived in the Archipelago. Whatever she knew may have been better founded than Lady Jasmine’s teachings, but she remained secondary to the source. The only information I could trust about Her Majesty was that which came from her own mouth.
Wind stirred my skirts.
From now on, I could only trust myself.
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