MARROW: CHAPTER TEN, SCENE TWO
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
BY THE time Laude returned with the physician, I had fallen asleep. Mercifully, Pashzak refused to allow them entry. He woke me with just enough time before the Procurator’s banquet to change costumes and freshen my face.
Only he escorted me to the Hall of Prosperity. Laude stayed behind to supervise the weekly tidying of my room and search for contraband. The two of us walked in silence to the middle of the Court, wherein laid the five Ministers’ residences encircling a central villa—the Hall of Prosperity.
Our silence was uncomfortable at best. What was said earlier was not wrong, but it was surprising that he noticed at all and cared enough to scold me for it. Laude hadn’t even made allusions to my state—likely to avoid offending me, but hearing Pashzak say it out loud and the strain in his voice, I knew it needed to be said. I did eat too many poppy leaf tablets and not enough food. And, sometimes, I couldn’t keep it down. I didn’t drink enough water or sleep well enough, nor early enough nor long enough. And, worst of all, I didn’t know how to calm myself down once I worked myself into such a state. All I knew was work. Work, practice, and endurance. But with the clarity of a much-needed nap, my actions embarrassed me. He was not my brother. I barely knew his mask, let alone the real him. That he had to hold and soothe me like a child was humiliating.
But, part of me was glad he did.
As we approached the Procurator’s doorstep, I turned to Pashzak. “Thank you.”
“For?” He sounded irritated.
I chose my words carefully. “Being there for me.”
He curbed the flickerings of a smile and shrugged. “That’s the reason I’m here.”
We entered the Procurator’s home. I was immediately intrigued. The ceilings gilt with precious metals and gemstones gleaming against polished concrete floors and wall frescoes so brightly pigmented it made my eyes ache that I had come to associate with the Melidi family were nowhere to be found. Instead, the villa was minimally yet tastefully decorated with potted plants, ancient vases and urns sat upon carefully-sculpted pedestals, and the frescoes were fragmented parts of a greater whole held against the wall with twisted metal brackets. Were I not already aware of the villa’s owner, I would have assumed it belonged to a historian.
Slippered footsteps pattered down the vestibulum. A tall, older man wearing Summer shades accented with gold-embroidered roundels approached me and Pashzak.
“Ah! This must be Lady Dahlia. Come in, come in,” he said, gesturing for us to walk toward him.
I flashed my palms.
He did the same. “I am Imperial Procurator Domis Marek Domis Vītolus Maj Melidi, elder brother to Serkana Rutgita and Serkun Artis.”
“Lady Dahlia of the Limhoriò House of Butterflies. Pleased to make your acquaintance, Procurator. I apologise for not bringing a gift.””
“Please, Domis is more than enough, and please! Don’t worry. We can do without all the formalities, hmm? You are my niece, after all.” He chuckled and turned to Pashzak. “And your name?”
“Pashzak of Ralotai Melidars, Maj Melidi, brother to Lady Dahlia and nezhodya son of Serkun Artis,” he said in the vulgar tongue while flashing both palms.
“Ah! Nephew. Splendid. Tell me—do the two of you prefer wine or food to start? I have a lovely vintage from the coast of Maj Paltra which I’ve needed an excuse to uncork, and, as they say, there’s no time like the present.” He clapped once, loud but gentle. “Well? What say you?”
“Wine sounds delicious, thank you,” I said.
As he led us to the dining hall, passing by more frescoes and sparsely-decorated rooms, he said, “I’d have my maids do this, but I think there’s no better way to greet family than with yourself in the flesh.”
I didn’t know how to respond, so I remained silent. At last, we reached the dining room. My stomach lurched as we entered. Artis—and Rutgita—already lounged on blanketed divans placed opposite one another. A low table brimming with plates of bread, cheese, nuts, and dips spanned the distance between them, all untouched. It did not occur to me that Rutgita might have been in the capital. What she was doing here, I assumed I’d know shortly. Did she know, I wondered, about Viscaria’s presence? Did she care? I shoved my dark thoughts back into the bowels of my mind and sat on the divan at Rutgita’s feet and Artis’s head as Domis gestured for me to do. He sat opposite me and summoned a maid to bring a cushioned chair for Pashzak. A different maid made her way around us all, filling our goblets with wine. Artis picked at a cube of cheese. Rutgita glowered at him, but looked away when he raised his head to meet her glare.
“So. Congratulations are in order, Lady Dahlia. I hear you’ve made quite the impression,” Domis began. He spread a blob of yogurt onto a slice of dark bread and took a bite. “Phase three of the Imperial Uzņika Examinations. It’s no easy feat—good on you. And you, brother—” he took another bite. “Good on you. It’s good to see your hard work paying off, isn’t it?”
Artis only nodded, not looking at me.
I took a sip of wine. It was deep red and acrid.
Domis finished his bread and looked at the three of us pointedly as if expecting us all to burst forth with impassioned debate. But, through another slice of bread, a handful of olives, and three cubes of cheese, we remained silent. Finally, he asked, “What’s this? You all look about as happy as a trio of criminals awaiting the gallows. What’s wrong with you all?”
My gaze snapped to Artis. He glared at Rutgita. She seethed at him. Something in the corner of my vision broke my lour; it was Pashzak, shaking his head almost imperceptibly, never breaking eye contact with me.
If Artis hadn’t wanted something like this to occur, he shouldn’t have entertained the possibility in the first place. As far as I could see, this mess was of his making. If Viscaria was aware of the scheme and played any role in it, I didn’t see why he had been pushing me so hard to dominate every one of my examinations. And, if anything, Viscaria would have been better suited to doing what I came to court to do. She had more experience, better technique, and higher stakes. The Chorbortsriya would have been wise to pick her. With a position like Uzņika Impozars, Viscaria could easily support Hawthorn and Alyssum with enough left over to support herself. And so what if I said something? Part of the blame for this nightmare also rested on Domis’s shoulders, if Artis spoke so much as a scrap of the truth. And if not, he deserved to know. I had no idea where Rutgita stood on things or what she looked so sour-faced about, but I couldn’t imagine she hadn’t by now heard that Viscaria was here. I broke eye contact with Pashzak. It was better to be honest than die in silence.
“We’ve all had a long day,” Artis finally said.
“We have. The day was long and our night short, so let’s forego the pleasantries and get on with supper.”
“No better a time to tell us about the day’s hardships than over supper with family.” Domis faced Artis. “Come. Speak. It’s no good to harbor resentments. Spill them now and we’ll sop them up with good food and wine.”
“I’m fine, thank you,” Artis replied.
Domis waved him away. “Bah. Drown in sorrow, then, but you’ll feel no better in the morning. Sister — what ill thoughts plague you?”
“Forgive me, brother, but I think it’s best that I return home for the evening.” Rutgita stood. “I find the air here irritates my mood.”
Domis sighed heavily. “Sister. Please, sit. I invited you here to celebrate our niece and brother’s achievements. Now, something seems to have occurred today that is preventing us from carrying on in high spirits. What is it?”
The three of us spoke at once.
“A long day.”
“This morning.” The words left my mouth but sounded as if an entity other than myself had spoken them.
At once, their eyes were on me. Again, Pashzak shook his head, this time more vehemently, but I steeled myself and drew a deep breath. “This morning when I awoke, I was handed a gown and told to stand outside with my fellow uzņika. I did.” I fidgeted with my hands. “And, while there, I met my competition. Ladies Camellia, Olive, Hibiscus, Mint, Geranium, Sloe, Barberry, Buttercup, and—”
“Lady Dahlia,” Artis sharply reprimanded, but Domis shushed him,
“And before I came to Maj Impozars, my father told me I was to be the only uzņika not from the mainland in attendance as you, uncle, granted him a brotherly favour by securing me alone an invitation to the capital.”
Domis laughed in incredulity. “Brotherly favour? Since when did we grant those?” he turned to Artis, who stared me down with the fury of wasps trapped within a burning hive. “When were you going to tell me this?”
“I’m sorry to interrupt, uncle, but that isn’t all.” I swallowed. “There was, of course, myself who was not from the mainland, but a final uzņika in our group.”
Artis cut me off as I tried to continue. “Daughter, this is hardly the appropriate forum for such discussion and as your father I command silence. We—”
“Enough, enough already,” Domis interrupted. “Let the girl speak. There’s no need to raise our voices or start barking orders. Please, Lady Dahlia, continue.”
“Lady Mint, who is from Pipali, Solka,” I said, “And Lady Viscaria of Limhoriò, Örös; my mentor.”
Domis blinked. “Is this true?” he asked Artis.
Rutgita smirked, shaking her head. Pashzak, meanwhile, held his in his hand.
My heart beat in my throat. Artis was bold enough to strike me before the Yellow Queen and her bodyguard. I knew Rutgita would at least lash out with her tongue, but I didn’t know Domis well enough to trust him to keep his brother’s rage at bay. For all I knew, he may think it his fatherly right to beat me.
“Listen. Look at me now and tell me, brother. What are you going to do to help your daughter?”
Rutgita scoffed. “Which one?”
Artis pursed his lips.
“And you—” Domis gestured at Rutgita. “What are you going to do for your niece?”
“Nieces,” Rutgita corrected. “And on account of that I will do nothing. The circumstances are already highly suspect. Two daughters of House Melidi not only have made it into the third phase, but imagine the outrage if both turned up on the roster of Imperial Uzņika. Just imagine — the very thought is preposterous and insulting. However you managed to orchestrate this circus, brother,” she said to Artis, “is not any matter I wish to be involved in. I will not help her cheat.”
“Cheating?” Artis clamoured up and began pacing the room. “You accuse me of cheating? You? My sister? And not only that, but you accuse my daughter? How dare you. That is ludicrous and an insult to my very name. The nerve. My daughters have made it this far on sheer talent alone. I have nothing to do with their success. Lady Pearl chose the uzņika she felt were most deserving of the chance and I consented for them to appear at court.”
“Lady Dahlia turned nineteen the day before you set sail. The Collegium approved her licensure three days after you left, yet she had an invitation in-hand while still an aizņika?” Rutgita snarled. “I mean no offense to you, Lady Dahlia, but Lady Hawthorn should have been here with her twin. If not her, Lady Gardenia deserved this chance.”
Artis turned blue with rage. “I — ”
“Hold your tongue,” Domis commanded. “Do you agree?” He asked me.
My words caught in my throat. I forced them out. “If Serkana Rutgita thinks so I must trust her eye, but if I may say so, the fact is that I am here now and so is Viscaria. If either of us resigns from examinations all that will have been accomplished is that we won’t have to compete against one another. However, I also have not the faintest idea of how I’m supposed to outperform her. Once the Empress sees her dance, no one will have to worry for my presence any longer. I’ll be finished.”
“You were chosen out of more than three hundred others. You can overtake another,” Artis muttered.
“She shouldn’t have to,” Rutgita snapped. “Nor should Lady Viscaria need to worry about overtaking her charge.”
“And if it had been Lady Hawthorn? Would she not have then had to worry about outperforming her own twin?” Artis spread his arms. “I have done for my daughters all that I can do. They must carry themselves the rest of the way. If that means two Melidan uzņika on the Imperial payroll, I’m sure it will be because the Empress thought they would be worth the money.”
Domis, who had been sitting with his hands clasped in front of him, hiding a faint smile behind his bone-white beard, suddenly stood. “Brother,” he sweetly said. “Sister. Please, follow me to my study. Lady Dahlia, Pashzak — wait here.”
The three of them disappeared down the hall. Not long after their departure, shouts echoed down the hall. A sharp crack like a door broken in half startled me. I looked at Pashzak. He let out a long, arduous sigh, shaking his head. I shrank down in my chair. If not for me, they wouldn’t be fighting, but if not for Artis there would not have been a fight to have. When they returned, Rutgita looked positively enraged; Artis, as if he’d been socked in the stomach; and Domis, oddly satisfied. When they all took their seats once more, Domis spoke again.
“Lady Dahlia. As an apology for my brother’s actions, my sister shall privately tutor you once per week at her residence, the Villa Gladiolus. Lady Viscaria will likewise be taken care of. And,” he continued, “My brother has informed me that he wishes to say something to you.”
They shared a look that said it was very much not Artis who wished to speak. But, though his eyes were cast to the ground and his voice barely audible, Artis said, “I apologise for not informing you previously of Lady Viscaria’s presence.”
“Thank you,” I quietly replied. “And thank you for your assistance, Serkana Rutgita.”
She did not reply.
“Good. Very good.” Domis positioned himself to lounge on his divan. “Now that the day has been addressed, we can get on with supper. I brought you here to eat, and Divine Judge be my witness we will eat.”
I couldn’t fathom putting anything in my mouth while my stomach churned so sickeningly fast. But, I put a few nuts and a small wedge of bread on my plate to be polite. Artis’ apology was hollow, but my gamble had paid off. Domis would stand up to Artis.
“Divine Ancestor, what a night,” Domis laughed as he sipped his wine. “It’s just like old times.”
Ko-fi allows you to make a one-time donation to help support my work. Thank you kindly for your support!