MARROW: CHAPTER TWO, SCENE ONE
SECTION ONE: THE BUTTERFLY HOUSE
In the Fifth Era of the Paltran Emperors
DESCRIBE YOUR ARRIVAL IN ÖRÖS.
The Sixty-Sixth Day of Spring, Year Thirty-Eight of the Fifth Era of Paltran Emperors
IF THE road to the villa was magnificent, the villa itself was resplendent. When Rutgita led me beyond the translucent pastel curtains that divided the entryway from an immense atrium, I gasped. What luxury was this? The decor was unlike anything I could have ever envisaged even in my most dazzling reveries. Ornate rugs and tapestries warmed the pale silver walls; pastel curtains hung from the painted ceiling. Lush garlands speckled with fresh flowers complemented potted plants spaced carefully throughout the room. Sitting mats, pillows, low tables, and colourful divans made a maze of the atrium. Nothing about the furniture’s arrangement appeared to be intentional, yet it gave the room such a pleasurable flow I knew it had to be planned.
“This is the Limhoriò House of Butterflies,” Rutgita stated. “Given your origins, I find it aptly named. Larkspur!” She whipped her head to the left, where a pale pink curtain hung. “You’ve been here long enough to understand the protocol. I expect more from you.”
An older girl stepped out from behind the curtain with her head bowed, though her posture could put an iron rod to shame. She flashed both palms to Rutgita, then me. “Might you desire refreshment?” she asked.
“Whatever tea is already brewed shall suffice. And you?” Rutgita asked me.
I glanced at Larkspur. “Uhm… water, please?” I weakly asked.
Larkspur smiled sweetly at me. “Tea, darling. The water here tastes like dirt unless it’s boiled.”
Grimacing, I replied, “I don’t know anything about tea. What...do you think I should have?”
“Mint is my favourite, though the trader hasn’t been around yet. We have — ”
Rutgita cut her off. “Never recommend refreshments you are presently incapable of serving. Both of us shall have whatever is brewing. Use the good cups. Divine Brother knows they have gathered enough dust.”
“Right away, Serkana.” With another flash of her palms, Larkspur gracefully turned and hurried through a curtain on the opposite side of the room.
We waited right where we stood long after Larkspur returned with the tea and served us. Rutgita made no attempt to conceal her vexation, though she didn’t say anything further. I looked around the atrium a little more, noting all the pleasant intricacies in the mosaic on the floor. It was made of tiny, polished glass squares and depicted a sundry arrangement of flowers surrounded by butterflies of all shapes, sizes, and colours. I studied it until the front door opening broke my attention. Artis and Zhanna stepped inside, the latter seeming far less distressed than she had on the ship. When Artis went to Rutgita and whispered in her ear, she scoffed and, shaking her head, crossed her arms behind her back, looking straight ahead. With a wink toward Zhanna and me, Artis left the way he came.
“Mēlima,” a high, sweet voice welcomed. On the far side of the room, a yellow curtain parted to reveal a vibrantly robed woman of at least fifty years old. She opened her arms wide to flash her palms and, smiling, said, “I was beginning to worry, Serkana. It’s not like you to be late. Oh, but aren’t these two precious!” She stopped in front of Zhanna and I, putting one hand on each of our shoulders. She squeezed mine gently. “My, I can already see them on the night of their debut…Artis has outdone himself this time. Oh, how lucky!”
Rutgita cleared her throat. “Girls, this is Lady Pearl.”
“Blessed to meet you.” The Lady flashed her palms again.
“Why do you do that?” Zhanna asked. “The thing with your hands.”
“Zhanna,” Rutgita warned.
Lady Pearl respectfully held up a hand and said, “It’s alright, Serkana, they’re here to learn. I find that repetition and open communication are best to nurture my students.” To Zhanna, she brushed her thumb down the bridge of her nose, showing her palm to us before resting her hand. “In Kandrisev, this is the usual greeting, yes?”
Zhanna and I nodded.
“In the Empire, we greet one another like this.” She flashed her palms a third time.
“Why?” I asked.
“So you see there is nothing unfriendly in them.”
Zhanna looked confused. “But why?”
“I assure you there shall be plenty of time for cultural lessons during your time here, girls, but we need to move along. I shall be irreparably displeased if our lateness today causes the need to charter a different ship home." Rutgita sat on a striped divan and crossed her legs at the ankle. Her back remained perfectly straight. “Lady Pearl, if we may?”
“Yes, Serkana.” Lady Pearl turned to face us, chin raised in confidence. “Now. Both of you are unique. Just the same, each student here possesses something which sets them apart. A talent — a skill. It is my duty to oversee your journey to understanding how to unlock and nurture those skills, refine them, and use them for the benefit of all. This is a rare opportunity, girls, and one I know you will wisely seize.”
Zhanna looked worried. “So...you’re gonna teach me to sing?”
Lady Pearl nodded. “Voice. Dance. Poetic recitation. Storytelling, theatre, and calligraphy. You will receive an education to rival that of the top schools in the mainland: history, culture, art, fashion, literature, language. During your time at the Butterfly House, you will train in every discipline of art and academia, honing your proficiencies to become what so many Brisian girls envy to be: an uzņika. A living work of art. You will be loved and praised everywhere you go. You will be patronized by the elite and wealthy: nobility, ministers and politicians, public figures, merchant princes, generals and great admirals, celebrated academics… all shall sing your praises and tell stories of your legendary skill and grace.”
I looked at my feet while Lady Pearl carried on. Dancing and singing were fine as far as spectating went, but my voice was raw and harsh, my limbs far from dextrous, and, although I was agile thanks to catching butterflies, I was no dancer. Unless Lady Pearl was the greatest — and most patient — instructor in the world, I saw no such grandiose jobs in my future. Furthermore, I understood artwork to be expressions of beauty. Artis himself had said my appearance wasn’t why he chose me. And what did metalweaving have to do with art, anyway? Casting ate an enormous amount of energy. If I began casting regularly, I’d need days to recuperate, if not weeks.
My worries shifted as I saw Zhanna take a step forward. Maybe she was here to become living art. Me? Artis must have taken me to the wrong place. Perhaps I was here to help with repairs. Not as a slave, since Artis promised I wasn’t, but to be an employee of the Melidi family like Rutgita said of Lady Pearl.
“And as for you,” Lady Pearl said to me.
My chin shot up.
“You are far more than you seem as well. Pretty.” Her eyes flicked to my copper cuff. A knowing smile crept across her face.
“Thank you.” I bowed my head again.
“I want there to be no confusion,” Rutgita said, standing. “Your acceptance to the Butterfly House is contingent on the results of your entrance examinations, which shall be conducted later this evening. Whether you become an uzņika at the end of your education likewise depends on your ability to meet the conditions set forth by the Örösi Artists' Collegium. Lady Pearl?”
“Of course, Serkana. In order to be licensed to practise as an uzņika, you must find a sponsor — a patron, as we call them — to support your advanced studies. When you turn sixteen, the Collegium will require you to register as an apprentice — an aizņika — and make your debut. Precisely one year later, when you renew your licence, you must do so with a contract of patronage in hand. Two years thence, you may apply for the title of uzņika, though most are not licensed as such until they turn twenty-one,” Lady Pearl said. “But let’s not concern ourselves too much with protocol, hmm? It will be years before this is of import to you. You will, however, need to learn enough High Brisian to hold a fluent conversation before the year is out.”
I understood the words they said, but not their meaning. Licensure? Collegium? Registration? What for? If I was here to become living art, surely I wouldn’t be told when and where I could not exist. Were it true that uzņika lived as Lady Pearl described, it would be impossible to rest. Every action, word, thought, breath, and movement would have to be beautiful. And to think I would need a license to live!
A darker thought pushed through the forefront of my mind. “What if we fail?” I asked.
All eyes fell on me. I tried my hardest not to look at Rutgita, though her unamused stare bored into my skull. In some far-off room, ceramic and glass clinked together.
Lady Pearl smiled serenely. “I have known many members of the Collegium’s staff for over three decades: since I was a tebēza myself. Trust that by making it to my Butterfly House, you have little to fear. As for every trial after this one?” She put a hand on my shoulder. “Believe in your innate augustness. Persevere, and you will never fail.”
Rutgita flatly said, “More than that, this is an honour of the highest degree. Thousands of Empire-born girls are denied this opportunity every full Moon of Eusri. An uzņika’s companionship is coveted by the highest echelons of Imperial society. You would be stupid to abandon such an opportunity.”
While I didn't appreciate the notion that wariness equated stupidity, I knew she was right. Out of anyone I had yet met in my life, Artis and Rutgita were by far the most important. This was a prime chance — my only chance, perhaps — of forging even greater connections. I could be a professional metalweaver. I could even be a singer if I wanted. All I needed to do was seize the opportunity that had been handed to me. Me, of all the nezhdoya Artis could have chosen.
It would be nice to be looked upon with envy after all I'd gone through.
“Now. Are we all assured of ourselves?” Lady Pearl asked.
Zhanna looked at me. I grimaced at Lady Pearl. Rutgita glared at all three of us.
“Very good. Follow me!” Lady Pearl sang. “The Minister awaits.”
Zhanna and I followed along like baby ducks trailing behind their mother toward a navy curtain at the very far end of the atrium. My fingertips tingled. Until now, no one had mentioned anything about an entrance examination. What would the subject matter be? I could barely read Candrish, let alone make sense of High Brisian if a test of literacy was their intention. Writing would likewise be a farce. Forgetting language, I knew nothing about Imperial history. The Powdery brought in a tutor on occasion to make us more enticing for potential buyers, but her lectures blanched in comparison to the level of education Lady Pearl promised. Most of the tutor’s lessons regarded Kandrisev, anyway. Not many of her teachings were valuable now.
Every ounce of confidence I possessed when I stepped over the Butterfly House’s threshold absconded. But, I wanted to believe Lady Pearl. If through perseverance I could never fail, then persist I must. Artis bought me — adopted me — for a reason. I was able to attend the Butterfly House instead of all those other girls for a reason.
And if I failed — very nearly a guarantee, in my mind —at least I had the gift of endurance on my side. After all, nothing could be worse than life in the ruins of Kandrisev.
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