MARROW: CHAPTER THREE, SCENE FIVE
SECTION ONE: THE BUTTERFLY HOUSE
In the Fifth Era of the Paltran Emperors
DESCRIBE YOUR RELATIONSHIP TO LADY VISCARIA.
The Sixty-Sixth Day of Spring, Year Thirty-Eight of the Fifth Era of Paltran Emperors
WHEN Lady Pearl said Artis was to bring ‘a score of his closest friends,’ I of course imagined twenty individuals. When I returned to the atrium later that evening once it had been prepared for my performance, I was awestruck to find — at minimum — one hundred attendees awaiting my arrival.
Clenching my fists within the folds of my sleeve to hide my trembling hands, I walked to the wooden platform that was my stage. Everything I had asked for had been brought out: a bronze sphere hidden beneath a linen sheet, a lantern, and a large white curtain hung behind the platform. I glanced around the wings, where my sisters-in-learning were supposed to be preparing their instruments for musical accompaniment. Alyssum and Hawthorn were nowhere to be found. Viscaria tuned the twin strings of her lieve, whispering with Ladies Larkspur and Gardenia.
The prior two weeks had been devoted entirely to planning my debut. Viscaria helped choreograph. We planned slightly different performances for each of my potential names. Using the classical ballad Moonsrise over the Abyss as accompaniment was Lady Amethyst’s idea; the piece was simple, calm, and recognizable. Everything else was of my design.
I bowed my head and drew in a long breath. The House guests quieted. I knew I had enough Essence for this — I kept myself from weaving for three days to be certain — yet the thought of making a fool of myself by not being able to light my veins made my stomach churn.
I tapped my slippered foot. On the fourth tap, Viscaria’s bow dragged across the strings. On the eighth count, I unveiled my medium and gracefully helped the linen fall around the sphere's flat bottom as I spun around it.
As the music flowed, so did my Essence. I danced in circles around the sphere, veins dark as Void at first. As the music flowed, I let my Essence pour into me. Violet light illuminated my fingertips, drawing up my veins into my hands, my wrists, my arms. I snaked around and around the metal sphere, drawing brass up in shapes seemingly random, never more than a few steps away from its side. I shaped from it a juniper tree curved at the trunk like a wave, its branches and needles flared like sea foam crashing against the coast. I spun and twirled toward the lantern and drew it up, lifting it in a great arc before setting it beneath the tree deep within its bend.
The guests gasped as the final note ceased. I danced around my juniper tree, ending with my face to the white curtain upon which the lantern cast the shadows of thousands of butterflies hidden in the sculpted leaves.
Whispers flooded the atrium like wind, carrying words of praise and wonder. I savoured the moment. The debut performance was much like the first sip of wine or the first bite of a hemp cake. If fortune loved you, the ecstasy it brought was sweet enough to die in. Tonight, fortune was my friend.
I exited the stage the way I came in, rounding the Butterfly House to be ready to greet guests in the front gardens, where all my sculptures were ready to auction. Lady Amethyst followed not far behind, as did my tutors.
I waited near my sculpture of an uzņika within a flower wreath. And waited. And waited even longer. A sinking feeling weighed on my heart. This wasn’t normal. I cast Lady Amethyst a worried glance. She didn’t seem too concerned, nor did any of my tutors, who placed themselves around the garden in a natural yet gently obstructing way near places guests weren’t supposed to wander. I tried to quell my quickened breaths. Now was not the time for fear. The hard part was over. I’d given it my all. I was already an aizņika.
But I prayed I’d done enough. Just one year from now, I’d need a patron. Surely someone would have been so impressed.
Still, no one came. I bit the insides of my cheeks, wringing my hands beneath my sleeves. As my terror threatened to force its way out at the thought that I’d offended them somehow, the first few guests came trickling out of the Butterfly House doors.
I sighed in relief, though my heart pulsated as if struck by lightning. My breaths came no less strained. I flashed my palms to each guest and managed to thank them for their support without retching. They filtered through the gardens, marvelling at my statues and figurines. My stomach roiled every time one lingered near a particular work. Most who did stay long enough to be noticed left little cards in baskets set in front of each piece.
I waited in place for Artis, who never seemed to come through the door. After a few stragglers gave their praise, Rutgita came outside.
Immediately, I felt small. Her garb was simple. Plain. Her silvery hair was twisted up into a bun that hovered beneath her right ear, adorned with a pin that dripped glass petals shaped into a gladiolus flower. Rutgita’s poise eclipsed that of every other woman in the launnal. No matter how skilled I became, I could never hope to command as much respect as her. Even Lady Amethyst’s refinement was dwarfed by her excellence.
“Aizņika Juniper,” Rutgita said, flashing her palms to me. “That was by far the most… unique… debut I have attended. What inspired your performance?”
I blinked, searching for words. If she cared enough to ask, my answer had to be good. Stuffing my intimidation below the surface, I confidently blurted, “Well, Serkana Rutgita, I want to be an uzņika.”
“Indeed, I would think you are well-equipped to accomplish that,” she said.
My cheeks grew hot.
“Especially,” she continued, “If future performances of yours are as well-practised.” She glanced behind me. “I presume you sculpted this?”
“Yes,” I said. “It’s Solkan black marble. It took months, but it’s what allowed me to progress to sculpting metal.”
“What’s its title?”
I didn’t have one. None of my pieces did. There were too many to name in the time I had to get used to the idea that I would have to part with them. I glanced at the metal flowers — Lady Hellebore? Definitely not. Lady Peach Blossom? Too wordy. “Lady Gladiolus,” I confidently stated.
“And why this assortment of flowers?”
“I—“ I looked to Lady Amethyst, but of course she had no answers. “Peach blossoms give structure to the wreath, since their branches make up the band, and are small enough to not overwhelm the other details. Hellebore grows very near where I work, so I had an excellent reference. Gladiolus represent strength, which is one of the most important qualities for an uzņika to have.”
Rutgita sniffed. “My brother shall arrive shortly. There was an issue he and Lady Pearl had to resolve.”
My cheeks flushed. Surely it had nothing to do with me. “An issue? Is everything alright?”
“I advise you to speak with him if you feel you must. I am not one for gossip,” she said. “Good evening, Juniper. I look forward to attending further performances.”
She wandered into the garden with the other House guests.
I mingled a bit, more worried about this new issue than collecting accolades. Ladies Larkspur and Gardenia found me after my third or fourth round.
“You were perfect,” Lady Larkspur squealed. “Everyone left a tip. Everyone. They were all crowded around the sculpture trying to see how you’d done it; that’s what took so long for them to arrive. I am so proud of you.”
“And I,” Lady Gardenia said.
“Thank you dearly,” I said. “I appreciate every opportunity you two have given me to learn from you.” I glanced behind them. “Where are the triplets? Alyssum and Hawthorn never arrived.”
Their faces fell.
“Viscaria didn’t tell you beforehand?” Lady Larkspur asked.
My heart thumped. “Tell me what?”
They looked at each other.
“You…” Lady Larkspur began. “No, not you, it… if you go looking for the answer, it will ruin your night,” she said. “It’s nothing to do with you, understand. Just — ”
“You’ll want to visit Green House after your auction,” Lady Gardenia said.
A wave of questions crashed through my mind. Were they ill? Hurt? Was that where Artis and Lady Pearl had gone? I said goodbye to them and made my way as cooly as possible to the Butterfly House doors. Ruined night or not, I needed to thank them. They’d done so much for me. As I reached to open the right door, the left swung open, revealing Artis.
“Juniper!” He jovially greeted me. “Father above, that was magnificent! Simply marvelous. I’ve never seen anything like it — no one has. Oh, you’ll have no trouble finding a patron. Not once word spreads of your abilities. Fantastic. Fantastic! And have you heard?”
“Heard what?” I asked, flinching.
“Every single guest left you a tip.” His eyes sparkled. “Now, it’s uncouth to discuss finances at a party, so if we might step inside —” He gently steered me over the threshold and closed the door.
I didn’t want to look at him. I didn’t much care about profits at that moment, either. Silent, I waited for him to gather his wits.
He clapped his hands together and gave them a shake, pacing excitedly in front of me. “Your debt, to date, is not less than fifty-nine thousand maugat. In tips alone, you made just under fifteen thousand.”
I balked. “No.”
“Yes.” He beamed. “I’ve never, not since Rutgita made her debut, seen a single aizņika make so much in one night. And the auction’s still going!”
“Wait— ” I shook my head. “Since Serkana Rutgita’s debut? Serkana Rutgita is an uzņika?”
He waved me off. “The important thing is that you are now one-quarter less in debt than you were — and, as I said, that’s without what you make at the auction.”
Suddenly, nothing was real. A quarter of my debt, eradicated. The thought almost made me queasy. I watched him, his beaming face, the lines etched into his forehead, the ridiculous hat he wore atop his headscarf, and swallowed. “I need to see Lady Pearl,” I lied.
“Yes, of course, it’s a lot to take in I imagine. She’s praying at the Artist’s shrine. Oh, you were beautiful,” he sang. “Just beautiful. I knew you were a special one.”
I nodded. “May I continue to impress.”
My stomach heaves. I darted across the atrium with my skirts hoisted nearly to my knees, sleeves bunched up to my chest. Flying out the door, I carried on past the Artist’s shrine, the statues of better uzņika, Violet House, Yellow House, and finally, Green House. I tore up the steps and threw open the door.
Hawthorn held her head in her hands, sitting in the middle of the floor. Viscaria sat beside her, cheeks stained with tears.
I breathed in hard, short gasps. “What’s wrong? What’s happening? Are you alright?” Neither answered. I dropped to my knees between them. “Where’s Alyssum?”
Viscaria sobbed. I let her lay her head on my shoulder, rocking her back and forth, back and forth, until her cries made her voice hoarse and her eyes swelled shut.
I watched Hawthorn, who sat so still I feared she’d turned to stone.
Alyssum could have died. She could have fallen very ill. She could have injured herself before the performance. But why, then, was she not in bed?
“The bitch let Artis dismiss her,” Hawthorn uttered so quietly I almost didn’t hear.
A new round of tears possessed Viscaria. I hugged her tightly, listening for Hawthorn to speak.
“You remember Branas?” Hawthorn asked.
“Branas has a brother. Half-brother,” she corrected. “The ankle offered to be her patron two years ago. We didn’t know the two were related and the gormless fucker mistook Alyssum for Viscaria. Apparently, when he wasn’t telling her sweet nothings about how talented she was, he was spreading rumours that he was fucking her this whole time.”
I laid my head on Viscaria’s. Tears crept into the corners of my eyes. “Where did they send her?”
“Fuck if I know,” Hawthorn snapped. “She was gone by the time I got here. Viscaria didn’t even get to say goodbye. Lady Pearl told us she tried to convince Artis there wasn’t enough proof, but he decided it would be an ‘insult to the Nieklins’ if he called their son a liar. Sex is antithetical to an uzņika.” She exhaled sharply through her nose. “Fucking ankles all around.”
“It’s not fair,” Viscaria whispered. Suddenly, she sat up. “It’s not fair!” She screeched before falling back onto my shoulder. “That obnoxious, bitter, arrogant bitch got in bed with her patron and nobody batted an eye until papa Melidi found out, and here it is strutting around the luannal with no consequences but an ugly fucking face!”
“Don’t you dare utter its name,” Viscara growled at Hawthorn.
Her sister held up her hands.
We sat in silence for a long, long time. I knew it was only a matter of moments until Artis realised I had never gone to see Lady Pearl, but whatever anger he visited upon me for that was nothing compared to the raging, boiling, seething wrath simmering inside me. Be a flower, but don’t smell sweet. Be a gem, but don’t incite greed. Be a living work of art, but don’t inspire adoration.
“We were all going to apply to become uzņika together not three weeks from now,” Hawthorn muttered. “They’ll no doubt whore her out until they get their money back. Evil. Just fucking evil.”
“Marrow,” Viscaria said, sitting up again and running her hands through her inky hair to push it away from her face.
My heart skipped a beat.
“Please go back to your auction. I don’t want to talk anymore.”
Ko-fi allows you to make a one-time donation to help support my work, while Patreon allows you to make a recurring monthly donation of $1, $3, or $5 with additional perks such as advanced chapters or bonus material (such as old drafts). Thank you kindly for your support!