MARROW: CHAPTER THREE, SCENE TWO
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
MY FIRST month living at the Butterfly House tested the limits of my ability to learn via observation. The other uzņika-in-training constantly admonished my Brisian accent. Too thick, too mild. Too Candrish. Too obvious. No matter what I did or how I said it, nothing sounded right.
Every day, Viscaria drilled me with new vocabulary. Sometimes Alyssum and Hawthorn helped, which seemed to soften Viscaria’s inevitable chiding when I made a mistake. On one such evening, Alyssum put a cold hand on my arm.
“I think tone and length is what’s confusing you,” she suggested. “You’re holding the short sounds too long and the long sounds… well… not long enough. Listen. Launnal. ‘Nnnn.’ Not ‘n,’ and ‘lau’ should briefly rise.”
“Law-ņal?” I tried.
Hawthorn snorted and turned away, shaking her head, snickering.
“‘Nnnn,’ Argita Nauve, not ‘nyuh,’” Viscaria admonished.
I did not come to understand the concept that night, nor for many nights after. Hawthorn was reduced to laughing tears by my later attempts. If I couldn’t please them by making good progress, at least I could entertain.
Forgetting pronunciation, there was also the issue of grammar. Grammar was a beast unto itself. Viscaria was mercifully more patient with me in this regard, though it still took an age for me to be able to string together a basic sentence without embarrassing myself. Half the time I was certain it was all some cruel trick devised to goad me into accepting defeat.
Through all this, I took Lady Pearl and Viscaria’s advice to heart: no matter how many winces my ineptitude garnered, I persevered. And, eventually, I learned enough from the triplets to convince Lady Pearl I was fit to continue my education.
Fulfilling my other duties barely qualified as obstacles in comparison. I was no stranger to scrubbing, cooking, and laundering, as everyone at the Powdery was expected to contribute to its cleanliness. My most pressing difficulty came in learning to wake up before dawn. That took time. Between chores and trying to steal glimpses of lessons, I barely had a handful of moments per night to sleep. If I wasn’t washing the senior girls’ clothing or fetching jars of cosmetics, I was scrubbing floors, upholstery, mirrors, and dishes until my fingers bled.
Thankfully, everyone else was so used to their routines they didn’t need me to wake them as Rutgita expected they would. I'd have to have woken at midnight were that the case.
Being resigned to maidly duties, I had little to do with the Butterfly House on evenings we hosted guests. I instead used that time to tidy everyone’s bedrooms and the Artist’s shrine without interruption. Normally, none of my sisters-in-learning nor Ladies Pearl and Amethyst left the Butterfly House until every guest went home.
In the last week of the month of Rain, while I was arranging freshly-washed offering plates at the shrine, Viscaria came in and stood near the door. She didn’t say anything; just watched me polish the Artist’s statuette with a damp rag.
It was hard not to steal glances at Viscaria’s costume: a white silk tunica under a vibrant pink dalmatic striped with triangular shapes. Its sleeves, trimmed with golden fringe, were so long they brushed the floor. Segmentae at each of her shoulders and the dalmatics’ sides displayed bouquets of flowers embroidered with tiny glass beads. When she shifted, they clicked together. A light blue palla cascaded down her shoulders, obscuring her hair. It, too, was so long it touched the ground.
When I finished my chores, I gathered my supplies and began to leave. Viscaria held out a hand across the door.
“It’s a guest evening,” she said. “Don’t you want to see what it’s like?”
I raised a brow. “I’m covered in sweat, smell like dust, and don’t have any costumes yet. Lady Pearl would be mortified.”
“All of that is easily fixed.” Viscaria lowered her arm. “But if you don’t think you’re ready, you don’t have to. I’ll just go back alone.”
I bit my lip. Admittedly, the prospect was tempting. Compared to everyone else, I looked like a serving girl. Sure, I wore leather shoes, hose, a camisia, like the rest of them, but my daily fashion ended with the addition of a tunica and a coif and cap to keep my hair out of my way — wool in winter, linen in summer. Certainly, the clothes were of better quality than anything I’d owned before and were tailored to fit me, but I couldn’t help longing to wear what the other girls wore when I saw them going about their nightly business. Inhaling, I asked, “How easily fixed?”
Viscaria smiled. “Follow me.”
We retreated to our shared apartment. I deposited my rags and pail near the door. Viscaria carried on to her bedroom. After some time, she came back out with a wicker basket.
“It’s time for your very first lesson,” she announced as she began laying out garments on a divan. “Getting properly dressed.”
I glanced down at my stained tunica and dirty shoes. Frowning, I came to where she stood.
“Now, this isn’t a true aizņika costume, but you’re not yet an aizņika so all that matters is that you look presentable. First, undergarments. This should be easy since you wear them every day.” Viscaria pointed at each. “Fine linen hose and a finer linen camisia. There are also silk garters and… ” She looked on either side of the chair. “Go put these on. I forgot the boots. Oh, and don’t undo your coif. We don’t have time.”
I took them to my room and quickly shimmied out of my old clothes. The hair on my legs stood up once released from their confines. Despite how much they itched, I donned the new hose and tied them off. The linen oozed quality. When I put on the camisia, I wondered why I couldn’t simply wear that for the rest of my life. Its was light, airy, and its softness went unmatched. When I returned to the common room, Viscaria held a pair of soft, black leather boots in one hand and a shapeless, long-sleeved garment draped over her other arm.
“I think I may have sold the other pair to Gardenia, so you’ll have to make do with these instead,” Viscaria said. “After that, you’ll want to put on this stola.”
The dye was so vibrant it appeared as though its maker had unravelled a ruby and spun it into silk threads. I marvelled at its workmanship, wondering how old it might be — not because I would rather wear something new, but because it seemed so fragile I knew it would turn to dust the moment it fell over my head. Gingerly, I took both items from her and returned to my room.
I put on the boots and wiggled my toes. They were just barely too large, but I would rather wear shoes with room to spare. I hated constricting my feet.
I donned the stola, slipping my arms through the sleeves. They tightly hugged my upper arms and inflated into a bell-shaped puff before cinching at the wrist.
Viscaria thrust her hand across the threshold, holding two belts: one very thin and black, the other wide and white, and a deep red brocade dalmatic. “I couldn’t find the original belts, so these must do for now. Please do hurry — I have someone coming to see me tonight.”
Swiftly, I pulled on the dalmatic. The beaded collar was embroidered with a repeating pattern of circles within squares within bigger squares. I brushed my fingertips over the glass beads and thought of river stones smoothed by cascading water. Viscaria quickly tied the belts around me, adjusted the dalmatic so it didn’t bunch up, and ushered me out the door, holding yet another rectangle of silk, this one crimson and trimmed with two stripes: one white, one black.
“This is a palla,” she said as we walked. “It’s not typically worn indoors in the Empire proper, but in Örös it’s required when men and women mingle. I’ll give you the fibula to fasten it once we get inside.”
I hurried along after her, trying not to trip on my skirts. I shuddered to think of wearing an real aizņika’s costume for the first time. To say they were unwieldy would be an understatement. At the end of most evenings, I had to bustle everyone’s skirts and pin up their sleeves so they could return home without shredding the hem or tripping over it. That was to say nothing of the ornamentation — nor just how heavy all of it was.
Though Ladies Pearl and Amethyst’s costumes were much more manageable, being full-fledged uzņika, helping them disrobe and keeping each garment in perfect condition was a terrifying prospect each time they asked for my help. That I had been assisting with this five nights per week for eight weeks didn’t matter. The sheer cost of a single slipper was worth what Artis had paid to purchase Zhanna — twice.
“Tell him your name is Anemone,” Viscaria said as we exited through the eastern gate. “Not just him, anyone who asks.”
We stopped in front of a side door. “But I — ”
“Please. Anemone is his favourite flower.”
“But what is an anemone?”
She stuffed a warm copper fibula into my hand and whispered in Candrish. “A windflower.” Looked over her shoulder, she said in Brisian, “It doesn’t matter. That’s almost certainly not going to become your performing name. Hurry, now. Put on your palla and follow me.”
I noticed the brooch was shaped like a butterfly with open wings. I veiled myself and followed her inside.
Viscaria beelined across the atrium toward a young man sitting alone on a night-blue divan. On seeing her, he stood and flashed his palms, beaming like she was the Artist herself come to see him personally. I hung near the door to gather my wits.
The rest of the Butterfly House was eerily calm. Gardenia entertained a party of twelve richly-dressed men, all of whom wore the same long and brightly-dyed veils I saw on my arrival in Örös. Alyssum and Hawthorn played instruments I’d never seen before for another group against the far wall. To my surprise, a few clusters of women sat in the audience, likewise veiled. Of the few in attendance, none appeared to have come with a man, though one jovial couple sat in the corner with Larkspur. They appeared to be playing some kind of drinking game. When the man rolled the dice, the woman guffawed and Larkspur passed him a cup. He tried to sip from the far side of the rim. Clear drink spilt in his lap.
“Anemone,” Viscaria called.
I came to her. When I arrived in front of them, I flashed my palms to the man. He offered the same greeting.
Viscara motioned for me to sit on the divan across from them. “Anemone, this is Serkun Branas Gedinas Markas Vasviko Majai Nieklins. His family oversees the salt mines here in Örös.”
“My word, she’s adorable,” he gushed. “Such lovely eyes and a petite nose. Lady Pearl found quite the gem in her. How long has she been here?”
“Eight weeks, Serkun.”
Branas looked at me as if my face were a puzzle he was close to piecing together. “Marvelous!
When is her debut?”
“Oh,” Viscaria said. “Not for a long time. She just arrived.”
“Anemone, from where might you hail?” Branas asked.
I glanced at Viscaria. No one had told me if stating my origins was prohibited.
“She… can understand me, correct?” Branas asked.
“Rahvesk,” I whispered.
“Say that again?”
“I’m from Rahvesk.”
His eyes widened as if I had dropped a sack of precious gems at his feet. “Are you really? Father above, that’s simply miraculous! I’ve never met one of your kind before, but I studied them at the Imperial University. Nomads, correct? And fine warriors. My, my, it’s clear as ice to me now: iron-grey skin, honey-golden eyes, crow-black hair, downturned ears segmented into two and — do me a favour, Anemone, would you? I have to know if you have the Seal of Drepida.”
I pulled back. My body was neither a figurine nor a specimen to be studied and assessed. I’d had quite enough of such examinations after being combed over by Rutgita and the Minister of Health. Casting me an apologetic glance, Viscaria took his arm and put a hand on his knee.
“I would not be so certain that she’s the only one,” she said. “When I was barely young enough to walk, an entourage from the capital came to spend some months at my birthplace—Karka, Ochetsk.”
“No,” he gasped. A wide grin spread across his face. “You were born a barbarian? A savage? Divine Mother, does Lady Pearl know more about civilizing outlanders than she lets on! I never would have guessed. Oh, but central Candrish girls are some of the most beautiful in the world. Sadly, rarely as cultured as one would like, which is such a shame — with the exception of you, Viscaria, and Anemone, of course. We’ll train you up well in our ways. And please, I’ve always wondered: do your kind really sleep with elk mounts?”
I struggled to keep my expression as serene as Viscaria made herself appear. Beautiful but uncultured? Rahvesk had a vast culture. Hundreds of thousands of stories, legends, and knowledge of things no one mortal could alone remember had been recorded by our ancestors — ancestors older than blue blood itself. Kandrisev was forged in the steppe. Black blood was born of its soil and streams. How Viscaria maintained her composure, I couldn’t fathom. I clenched my fist.
“Yes we do tame elk, but they sleep alone.”
“Fascinating. Oh, simply fascinating. I can’t imagine living in such a way. I have an even harder time trying to imagine you rolling around in the muck and grime. You’re far too delicate for such things,” Branas said with a laugh.
Viscaria gave a terse smile. “Ochetsk has houses, farms, and settlements just like Örös and the capital. But,” she looked at me. “Anemone has quite a unique gift. Would you like to demonstrate for Serkun Branas?”
I couldn’t tell if she meant to torture me or distract him long enough to forget his fascination with my birthmark. But, she had not yet led me astray. I unpinned the fibula and held it in my palm. My heart stuttered. He didn’t deserve to see my talents after spewing those words, but he was important to Viscaria. I couldn’t conceive of a reason she’d want such a pigheaded oaf as her patron, but it was her potential patron. If I never had to see him again, I’d die happy.
Lady Pearl’s words echoed in my mind. Perseverance. Endurance.
I let my Essence seep into my veins. Branas watched with keen interest. Soft violet light reflected off the silk of my palla and stola. When I felt I had enough, I made the metal butterfly flap its wings.
He leaned forward, enraptured. At the peak of his interest, I let my Essence fade. The butterfly turned cold again, unmoving.
“Thank you,” I said. “I’ll take my leave now with Viscaria’s permission.”
My palla slipped off as I turned and my coif lifted off my head. Hands crawled like spiders through my hair. Frozen, my heart rattled out of my chest waiting for Viscaria or Larkspur or Hawthorn or someone to see what was happening. Once Branas satisfied himself of my authenticity, I whirled around, unsure if I wanted to smack him or scream.
“Oh, I didn’t mean to scare you.” He offered a sheepish grin. "I just thought I'd take my chance while I had it."
Viscaria looked horrified under a veneer of complacency.
I bolted, leaving the palla in Branas’ disgusting hands. I didn’t stop to think about where I was going — just away — and burst through the door to the kitchen. Shivering, I threw open the storage room door, curled up against a sack of flour, and cried. My throat ached. My stomach roiled. I didn’t care about the dust that surely now clung to the stola beyond how much I’d owe Artis to clean it off. I didn’t want to be clean. I’d bathe in flour every day if it meant never being the object of someone's fascination again. Dirty things were left alone. Broken things went unnoticed.
When the pantry door opened, I nearly jumped out of my skin. Alyssum poked her head inside. Her puzzled frown was overtaken by a soft expression I’d only expect from my mother. She closed the door behind her.
“Please don’t tell Lady Pearl,” I begged. Sobs and coughs swallowed my words.
“Are you going to be alright if I leave to retrieve something?” she asked. “I’ll return shortly. Don’t worry — no one will follow.”
I spent the next few moments worrying Alyssum lied. She did come back alone, save a few jars of face paint and some brushes, and sat alongside me.
“What happened?” she asked.
“He wanted to see if I had a — ” I hiccupped. “A mark on the back of my neck. He studied Rahvesk at some university and — I didn’t think he would — ”
“We are to be viewed, not touched.” Her normally soft voice grew stiff. “I won’t make you, but you should tell Lady Pearl. He cannot be allowed to do that again. I don’t mean to scare you, but what might he have tried if you hadn’t been in the atrium?”
“Viscaria will hate me if he gets banned,” I wailed.
She sighed. “Viscaria is my blood sister — more than that, she is my triplet. I love her, but if despite all her skill she cannot manage to find a patron better than Branas Aimaj Nieklins, all of us are truly doomed. Nobody deserves that amount of inconsideration, least of all a child. If you decide to tell Lady Pearl, and if Viscaria is nasty about it, you can always come to me or Hawthorn.” She unscrewed the jars and prepared each brush. “But… I don’t think she’ll be as angry as you think. Viscaria likes you.” She held up a brush dipped in oiled kohl. “May I paint your face?”
I closed my eyes. She breezed over each eyelid with a practised hand. I trusted her. I trusted Viscaria. I wanted everything to be alright. “He called us barbarians. He acted like we were… I don’t know. Not alive.”
Alyssum went to work on my lips. “The hardest lesson I had to learn when I came here is that we uzņika are whatever our guests want us to be. Perhaps Branas prefers fantasies of barbarism, but many more men like strong girls. Skilled girls. Intelligent girls. You aren’t a savage nor a wild woman any more than he is civilised.” She cleaned the brush. “This is a play of many masks. The one you put on each night may not be the one you wake up with in the morning, but so long as you remember it’s just a mask, you can never forget your face.”
I stayed quiet.
“Do you remember who you are?”
“I am Marrow,” I said. “And Argita Nauve is my mask.”
Alyssum nodded. “And I am Belesha of Karka. Artasa Nauve and Alyssum are my masks. I’ll wear many more before I die. So will you.” She packed her paints and stood. “A pleasure to meet you, Marrow.”
I LEFT the pantry not long after Alyssum. When I returned to the atrium, the guests had all gone. Larkspur was scooping up pieces of shattered ceramic from where the drinking game had taken place. Gardenia and Hawthorn put away the musical instruments. Lady Pearl and Viscaria stood at the other end of the atrium, deep in quietly heated discussion. When the Lady left, I silently approached.
“Argita Nauve? Oh, thank the Mother,” Viscaria said. “I told Lady Pearl what happened — what never should have happened. Branas will not come here again. He’ll be lucky if the Artists’ Collegium doesn’t ban him from every launnal in Örös.”
I wanted to smile, but I was too exhausted. She handed me my palla.
We walked back to Yellow House in silence. After we donned our nightclothes, Viscaria came to my door.
“You did very well tonight, Branas’ misbehaviour notwithstanding,” she said.
“Thank you. I hope you’re not mad,” I said.
“No. I have my eye on another potential patron much better than Branas ever would have been. It will require some finesse to snag him, but what's an uzņika without her artifice?" She flashed a smile. “Get some sleep, Argita Nauve. Tomorrow, you’ll start going to regular lessons with the rest of us.”
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