MARROW: CHAPTER THREE, SCENE SIX
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
I DID not return to the auction. Instead, I entered the Artisan’s shrine, which by then was thankfully empty.
It was unlike me to pray. There was no point. All the Empire’s gods were dead. If one prayed enough, according to our religious tutor, they may hear how much we need them and awaken. The moons were all corpses. The sun, the same. The stars were the shards of their shattered souls cast about the Void to illuminate us at night. No amount of invocation, crying, or begging could bring someone back to life.
But for Alyssum, I would try.
I knelt in front of the Artisan’s shrine and lit a cone of myrrh. My nostrils filled with the scent of mourning.
“Thank You, o Divine Artisan, for blessing me and my sisters-in-learning,” I said with my arms raised as if to lift the sky. It felt awkward and insincere.
Clearing my throat, I tried again, bowing. “Too many good things happened to me today.” Now I sounded ungrateful.
Huffing, I cast off the weight of pretense and folded my hands in my lap. “My name is Marrow. You probably think my name is Juniper, or Argita Nauve, or Anemone, or nothing, since you’re dead and I doubt you’d care for me even if you weren’t.”
If anyone heard this, I’d be whipped for speaking so harshly.
“I am angry,” I said through clenched teeth. “Alyssum — Artasa Nauve, or Belesha of Karka, which is her real name — doesn’t deserve this. Branas Nieklins lied to get revenge on her sister Viscaria, which is probably my fault since I’m the reason he got banned, so if anyone you should be punishing me. And actually, none of us deserve this. I’m grateful for my lessons and my friends, but not for being in so much debt. Not for being bought like a slave, even if Artis says I’m not. Definitely not for things like what happened to Alyssum being able to happen in the first place.” I shrank back a little. “I don’t know if it’s your fault things are like this. I don’t want to think so. If it’s not… could you… just… just come back so everyone knows it’s supposed to be different?”
I bowed my head. If I was asking so many things of her, I might as well ask for everything I could think of. “Please punish Artis for his misdeeds. Make Rutgita less hateful. Let Hawthorn play the best music in the Empire. Let Viscaria dance for the Empress. Let Ladies Alyssum and Gardenia have happy, fulfilling lives. Help me find a patron who won’t be vengeful.”
The door opened and shut quietly.
“Thank You, Divine Artisan, and may you bless the rest of this evening,” I quickly finished and stood with my eyes cast down in case it was Artis come to find out where I had gone.
“What are you doing?” Viscaria’s voice was cracked and flat.
I gestured to the shrine. “Praying.”
I kept my eyes on her, though she didn’t return my gaze. “I will become an uzņika,” I stated. She glanced up, unmoving.
“I’ll succeed for everyone around me who has failed. I’ll ask Artis to take some of my auction profits to help pay down Alyssum’s debt.” I said.
“You don’t have to — ”
“I do,” I said, stepping closer to her. “Even if it becomes my downfall, I will triumph. I promised you that I would not fail. I meant it.”
“And I want you to promise me the same thing,” I said, standing close enough now to put a hand on her shoulder. “Don’t let this take away your dream. You told me you want to dance for the Empress. I bet you can do it before you’re twenty-one. But to get that far we have to keep going, even if it hurts.” I drew in a breath. “So are you going to give up, Viscaria? Or are you going to dance in Old Brisia before the Imperial Court?”
She pulled me in and sobbed, hugging me so tightly I could scarcely breathe. I patted her back, struggling to keep my cheeks dry.
“I will do everything in my power to help you succeed,” she whispered.
Viscaria said a brief prayer and left. I lingered a few moments behind. Alyssum was not the only girl to have been dismissed in the three years since I’d come to this place. Aloud, I said their names. Arte. Klauda. Albārta. Ottove. Gedina. Zhanna. I would not be like them. I would wear my mask. I would become an uzņika the likes of which no one had ever witnessed. So long as I wore my mask, it could never betray me.
And it didn’t.
Not until I forgot my face.
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