MARROW: CHAPTER THREE, SCENE ONE
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
WHAT seemed like an age passed before Lady Pearl returned to the Butterfly House atrium — without Zhanna. By then, my tears had dried, though I hardly felt any better. Light from the triplet moons melded with the dying sunlight to cloak the atrium in purple.
Lady Pearl said something to me. I didn’t understand. She repeated herself calmly, never raising her voice. Eventually, I guessed she wanted me to follow. We left the atrium and walked around to the villa’s side. A thick metal gate blocked the path to its posterior, which she unlocked with three brass keys. Ahead of us laid a much smaller garden than the one Rutgita and I traversed, but no less beautiful. Lady pointed at things as we walked and spoke their name clearly: launnal. Vitolu. aitolu. Campus, villa, and a half-dozen small buildings laid out in two clusters of three, which we fast approached. We made a hard right on a straight, narrow path paved with flat stones, then made our way up a short diagonal path that led to one of the small round buildings.
Three identical grey-skinned and black-haired girls of about sixteen years old sat drinking on the front step. As we drew nearer, I saw their feet were wrapped in black-stained bandages.
“Gėleji,” Lady Pearl said in Brisian. “Sau deijis nojauni maseva Argita Nauve. Rādies viņau geta teiš launnal.”
“Teija, Ponkana Olkausreji.” One of the girls rose and turned to me. “Voel kei runuols Brišias?”
Before I could decide if I should shake my head or nod, Lady Pearl said, “Mau Serkana Rutgita plojaugs aimaj, kei barzkaidš Kandrišias sau kelsri. Ik sējsnav mazdratai.”
The girl nodded. “Teija Ponkana Olkausreji.” She held her hand out to me. “Come. My name is Viscaria; those are my sisters, Hawthorn and Alyssum — my actual sisters, if that wasn’t obvious.”
They both barely looked my way as they flashed their palms. I did the same. As Viscaria and I walked away, Lady Pearl began quietly yet furiously whispering at the others.
We continued on the diagonal Lady Pearl and I started.
Viscaria pointed behind us with her thumb. “That’s Green House. Hawthorn and Alyssum stay there. Everyone but you is an aizņika. My sisters and I still have a few years before we’re eligible for licensure.” She pointed out Violet House, which stood next to Green House. “Gardenia and Larkspur live in that one. Gardenia is almost old enough to be an uzņika, but her patron promised a higher salary if she scored perfectly on all of her exams so she’s taking an extra year to study. Don’t be surprised if she’s too busy to talk much. Larkspur is lovely, but she’s a bit of a homebody.”
Yellow House, which rose in front of its green and violet companions, apparently sheltered Viscaria — and would soon be my home, too. We walked behind Violet House and turned left. Thorny bushes kept us from straying too close to the wall, which was so high I had to look up to see the top of.
We passed a wide area free of foliage. Five statues lined either side of it, with three more in the middle. Each depicted a different woman. Curious, I approached the nearest figure. Every bump, every divot, every raised vein was so exquisitely carved they all seemed alive. I swore I saw one draw breath.
When I looked back, Viscaria wasn't there. I froze in place, shaking at the thought of Lady Pearl— or worse, Rutgita — finding me wandering around alone.
Not long after, Viscaria came bounding down the path. “Oh, there you are. Sorry -- our dance lessons were brutal today, so I was only going to give a brief tour. We can stop by the statues on our way back if you want.”
“Oh, no, that’s alright,” I insisted. “They’re just so...lifelike.”
“Do you know who they are?”
I almost said no but caught myself and replied, “Not yet.”
“Some of the most legendary uzņika: Lady Jade, Lady Magnolia, Lady Dahlia — you’ll learn about all of them eventually. It’s said they were so talented because their souls were fractals of the Artisan’s own conscience,” Viscaria said.
“The Divine Artisan. The matron goddess of uzņika. Some call her Gaima, but you’ll get the blunt end of a broom on the back of your skull if Lady Amethyst catches you.” Viscaria pointed out a black stucco building southeast of where we stood. “That’s her shrine.”
I had heard of no such goddess. But, I filed it away in my mind as a query for another time. Viscaria’s feet looked painful.
When she started walking again, I kept stride. For being so clearly injured, she seemed more drowsy than pained. She strolled along at a rather even clip, pointing out two white stucco houses — Lady Pearl’s on the right and Lady Amethyst’s on the left. A short distance later, we turned right. A gate similar to the one through which Lady Pearl and I entered laid at the path’s end.
“So. You’re also from Kandrisev?” Viscaria asked.
“Do you remember the steppe?”
Utter disbelief scrawled across my face. In their fervour to scramble forth from my mouth my words caught in my throat. I fought to force them out. “Are you Rahvi, too?” I blurted.
“Ochetski. I was born in Karka.”
Ochetsk. Rahvesk’s southern sister. My fingers tingled and my chest buzzed. More of their clans had year-round settlements than did ours, but we had great respect for their prowess in battle. Here, in Örös, so far from my world it may as well have not existed, I had found someone like me. Karka was Ochetsk’s capital. All sorts of folk passed through. It was quite likely she had even met someone from my clan before. I smiled so wide my eyes watered. She would understand me. “Yes, I remember! I — ”
“Better start forgetting right now.”
My smile evaporated. “What?”
“Can I offer you some advice, Argita Nauve?”
“My name is Marrow,” I declared with palpable indignance.
“Not anymore, it isn’t. Here’s the thing.” Viscaria glanced at the twilit sky, taking a long, slow breath. Butterflies drifted between the flowering bushes that ensconced us. One, yellow, landed in her hair; a stark contrast to her inky locks. “Larkspur told us about that other girl that came with you and how angry Serkana Rutgita was after you met with the Minister. She also said you cried in the guest house after Serkana Rutgita left.”
“And?” I asked. “What does that—”
“Just listen,” Viscaria said. The butterfly fled, fluttering off into the distance. “The Empire is not like Kandrisev. Artis may have bought you — or adopted you, or whatever more attractive term he came up with to deny blame — but as far as the Empire is concerned, he owns you. For your sanity’s sake, abandon any notion you have of failing. There is nothing in the Empire for failed uzņika. If you can’t weather what comes next…” she shook her head. “I can harbour no pity for you.”
“Well I don’t want to fail,” I said. “All I did was ask a question.”
“And I don’t wish to invest time in someone who thinks failure is even a possibility,” she hissed. “Are you going to fail, Marrow? Or are you going to succeed?”
The words I had planned to say next seemed insincere. Of course I was going to succeed. I didn’t want to think about failure. Zhanna didn’t seem like she would be coming back. I hoped to never find out where it was she went. Fourteen hundred maugat? That was six times the price Artis paid for me. I glared at Viscaria, though I wasn’t really angry with her. I wanted her to know I was serious.
I stepped closer. “I will not fail."
She came so close our toes touched, staring down at me with crimson irises.
I didn’t back away. I held to the ground as if my feet were made of lead and locked eyes with her. Our staredown didn’t break for three whole moments.
Finally, Viscaria cracked a grin. “Good. Expect me to hold you to it.” She turned right again down a wider road. We hastened down it, faster and faster until we were almost running. She finally stopped in front of Yellow House to wait for me to meet her.
“This is where you’ll lay your head,” she said, stepping onto the covered porch. “We do our lessons in the Butterfly House. There’s a room for each discipline, and uzņika from around Limhoriò come to teach. Most of them trained here or at the launnal in Gilori, but only Lady Amethyst still lives here.” She held open the door for me. “I think someone already brought your things from the ship.”
I stepped inside. Two rooms with no doors sat on opposing sides of a shared lounge. All the furniture had been pushed against the walls. Impressive glass windows let in light from the domed ceiling. Inscribed around it were the triplet moons’ phases. The outer ring displayed the largest moon; the inner, the smallest.
Viscaria sat in the middle of the floor and began stretching. “Tomorrow is...fifthday? Yes. If you have time, I do think you should sit in on Lady Iris and Lady Primrose’s lessons. Lady Iris’ patron always has some special ink or vellum for her to try out. Her calligraphy is phenomenal. Lady Primrose could convince you the sky is glass and seawater is blood if she wanted.
Woman’s blessed with a quicksilver tongue. Anyway, your concern won’t be with lessons for at least a month — ” she bent past her toes. “And not a Candrish month. About seventy-two days, so plenty of time.” Still folded, she gestured to the room on the left. “That’s your room. Don’t worry — it’s clean. I beat out the rug and blankets this morning.”
I went inside. Two cots, one bare, clung to each wall. Against the back wall sat a desk, atop which rested my belongings minus the sack in which I brought them. A chest and table, which displayed a brass mirror, occupied the space at the foot of my bed.
I traced my hand over the bedsheets. It was smooth. Well-woven. The patterns had symmetry and purpose. The ratty blanket I brought with me wasn't suited to live a new life as a doormat. The floor was covered by a plain gold-and-red rug anyway.
I drifted toward the window. A kink in the metal frame kept it from shuttering evenly. Looking behind me to see Viscaria still stretching in the common room, I placed my fingertips on the knot and let my Essence bleed through me. My hands were bathed in violet light. When I healed the imperfection, I turned away, startling at the sight of Viscaria standing at the threshold.
“So I was right,” she said. “Here. Come out to the common room. Don’t expect my best effort on account of my feet, but just watch.”
I followed her and sat on one of the patched divans backed against the wall. She centred herself, closing her eyes, breathing deep. Almost imperceptibly, she knelt, arising again in silence. Two, three, four times, she dipped before gracefully and ever-so-slowly raising her arms above her head, twirling, using every flick of her wrists and pivot to demonstrate her gracefulness. Her veins glowed softly orange, growing brighter as she moved. The air surrounding her warped and shattered. A darkness so complete it seemed the Void had swallowed her enveloped the centre of the room. Hundreds of flecks of starlight tumbled out as the tear snapped shut with a bone-chilling crack.
The stars clung to Viscaria like leaves suspended in the autumn wind. She danced in her starfield as if it was the only way in which she knew how to exist.
Every time her movement slowed, I prayed it would not be her last. Tears beaded in the corners of my eyes. I imagined her dancing in front of triplet moons in a gown dyed with Void, covering my mouth to keep from crying.
Slowly, the light faded from her veins as she came to rest on the floor on her haunches, hands outstretched before her as if deep in prayer. One by one, the stars disappeared.
In their absence, Viscaria sat up. Sweat beaded on her forehead. “You like the igat, neh?” she asked. “That’s what I hope will convince them to let me dance for the Empress someday. It’s… not perfect, and I’m not actually an uzņika yet, but imagine what that could look like five years from now.”
I stared at her in disbelief. My soul ached. If she wasn’t even an uzņika yet and she could dance in such a soulful manner, I shuddered to think of how sublimely someone employed by the Empress could move. Gooseflesh lifted the hairs on my arms and neck. I drew in a sharp breath. “Can you teach me to dance like that?”
She grinned, letting loose a light chuckle. “As long as you don’t mind how much your feet will bleed.”
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