MARROW: CHAPTER TWO, SCENE TWO
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
THE curtain hid a door, which led to a gorgeous stone bath. Steam gently rose from a pool longer than it was wide. Tasteful statuettes of a divine figure I did not recognise arose from the water on pillars of slate.
A portly man wearing a long reddish robe and gloves waited across the pool. On the other side of the decorative screen standing next to him sat a plain wooden chair.
The creeping realisation that our entrance examination may be a physical assessment made the hair on the back of my neck stand. Nudity had never bothered me — indeed it was stranger to be bothered by it when the only baths I’d taken thus far had been with my clan in various rivers — but the scrutiny this suggested intruded on me even as I stood fully clothed behind Rutgita and Lady Pearl with Zhanna at my side.
“Disrobe, girls, and wash,” Rutgita ordered. Sensing our hesitation, she said, “Lady Pearl and I shall remain at your side at all times. The Minister would soon find himself unemployed were his intentions impure.”
“This is a simple checkup to assess your fitness to train,” Lady Pearl added. “If you’re diseased or injured, we need to know.”
The steam tickled my arms and back, teasing sweat from my pores. A bath did sound nice. Watching the Minister in case he tried to peek, I pulled off my coarse tunic and held it against my body like a shield, running for the safe pastures of bathwater. I jumped in, casting away my tunic as I did. Water splashed across the surrounding tile.
“Judge’s mercy, girl, have a little decorum!” Rutgita snapped. “Withdraw and enter again — with dignity this time.”
Grimacing, I strained my arms to lift myself out and slipped right back in. A much calmer splash accompanied my weight. I sat on the underwater bench attached to the pool walls. Water rose up around my neck. I relaxed. Hot, clean water was a blessing. Rivers did have a comforting flow; a wild charm. Most rivers in Rahvesk were considered clean. Whoever considered it so was decidedly wrong. This water was clear enough I could count my toes.
“I was examined!” Zhanna bellowed.
I flinched, first glancing at the Minister, then Lady Pearl and Rutgita.
Zhanna continued, “I was inspected by filthy hands and ugly men inside a Zoldoni mine. Some twenty onlookers and nobody stopped them. I was combed all over. So no, I won’t be inspected.”
“We are here to determine if you are diseased, injured, or otherwise unfit to train,” Rutgita stated. “If you wish to remain here, you’ll get in the bath.”
Zhanna did not move.
Rutgita pursed her lips. “Fourteen hundred maugat my brother paid for you, I believe? That is a significant amount of debt. How do you intend to erase it?”
“Debt?” I asked aloud, but seemingly no one heard.
Zhanna made a face as if her head were about to explode with frustration. Huffing, she tore off her muddy tunic and ran into the bath as far away from me as she could. The way she shivered sent ripples across the water.
While we soaked, Rutgita went around the bath to speak with the Minister. Lady Pearl crossed over to a closet embedded in the eastern wall and returned with a small basket. She handed Zhanna and I each a bar of soap carved into the shape of a butterfly and a phial of viscous liquid. To my surprise, she disrobed and stepped into the bath with us.
Starting with a thick application of soap all over her own face, torso, and limbs, Lady Pearl explained step-by-step how to properly wash ourselves. Her lesson concluded with the application of the phial's liquid to our hair. Mine was so dense and long it took my whole phial and half of Zhanna's to lather.
As we wiped the water off ourselves to dry, Rutgita came to where we stood at the bath's edge. “The Minister shall start with Zhanna.”
I looked at Zhanna, but she stared straight ahead, wringing out her bone-white hair into the pool. Her trembling hands betrayed her nervousness. Rutgita led her behind the screen and sat on the chair.
“Please, uhm, start with the head,” the Minister’s uncannily high voice squeaked.
I turned away from them and continued scraping water off myself with the skin between my thumb and pointer finger. The Minister and Rutgita spoke quietly. Try as I might, I found it impossible not to hear a few words here and there. No lice. Dry skin. Thin hair. Unable to quell my curiosity, I whispered, “Serkana Lady Pearl, what are they even looking for?”
“You needn’t call me Serkana and Lady.” She began to dress. “Simply ‘Lady’ will do. As for your question, the Minister is looking for anything that will guarantee a rejection when you eventually apply for your license: crooked adult teeth, marks or blemishes that cannot be erased, signs of an incurable illness.” She lowered her voice. “Scars that neither time nor Essence will fade.”
A tempest arose in my stomach. Most women of my clan carried similar birthmarks: the seal of Drepida, as we called it, or the Movnyak blot. A dark spot in the shape of a leaf at the place where one’s skull met their neck. I resisted the urge to cover it. The mark was so insignificant — nothing more than an interesting scrap of clan lore — that until that moment, I had forgotten it completely.
“You've been...branded?” Rutgita asked, sounding astonished.
Lady Pearl swept away from me to go behind the screen. I waited, knowing it could just as easily be me.
“Where is this, uhm, brand?” the Minister asked.
Rutgita replied, “The sole of her right foot.”
“If I may, uhm, we can attempt a procedure to diminish the, uhm, scarification,” the Minister said. “Be warned that it, uhm, will cause the healed skin to age faster than the rest of the, uhm, body. This could negatively affect, her licensing if it, uhm, progresses too swiftly.”
“I know what your ‘healing’ tricks do,” Rutgita snapped.
Zhanna shouted, “Don’t you dare touch me, you fat pig!”
Lady Pearl cut in. “Zhanna. Serkana! Please. It seems that Zhanna needs some time to come to terms with her new life. Serkana, if you will please assist with Marrow’s examination, I will take Zhanna to the apartments and see if we can come to an understanding.”
My stomach dropped. I wanted to vomit. Not much longer and I would be coming to an understanding with Rutgita about birthmarks. I came to stand in front of her chair. The Minister of Health was but a shadow on the other side of the screen.
“Palms, Marrow,” Rutgita said, holding out her own.
I briefly flashed them at her, but she grabbed my wrists and yanked them near her face, scrutinizing every line, crack, and pore. She did the same for my arms, my neck, my face, reporting her findings as she went to the Minister, who quietly jotted them down on a wax tablet. Rutgita glanced down my torso and legs as if to decide which to strike first. When she bent down to inspect my feet, she made a noise that almost sounded approving.
“I’m not branded,” I offered.
“Obviously. You have dancer's feet,” she said. “Turn around.”
I stifled a giggle. I was absolutely not a dancer, feet notwithstanding.
She examined my scalp next, picking through locks of hair no thicker than her little finger to look for imperfections or lice. The nearer she came to my birthmark, the sweatier my palms and the fiercer my heartbeat. When I felt her fingers clawing underneath my ears, I began to shake.
“Something the matter?” She asked.
“I’m only cold, Serkana.”
It was a bold lie right through my teeth, but it was better than the truth. If I failed the examination, then what? And what was all this about debt?
“Ah. Look here,” Rutgita said.
My stomach fell through the floor.
“This patch is discoloured.”
“Could be the, uhm, lighting,” the Minister offered. “May I assess?”
Rutgita took a fresh tunic from a basket beneath her chair and handed it to me. I put it on. She waved the Minister over.
“Look.” She pulled my hair up and away, raking my scalp with her nails as she gathered it. “Do you see it?”
My heart pounded. My stomach ached. I prayed to whatever gods still listened to please, please let me not fail so easily.
The Minister took his time. “Hmm,” he repeated every so often. Finally, when I felt so anxious I was sure I would crumple, he said, “Apologies, Serkana, but I don’t. It may, uhm, be blush brought on by the, uhm, heat.”
She scowled and dropped my hair. “Very well.” Rutgita stood and followed the Minister around the other side of the screen. He handed her the tablet, which she signed.
“Come along, Marrow,” she said as she swept out of the bath back into the atrium in which we met Lady Pearl.
I released the terror within me. A wave of overwhelming exhaustion nearly brought me to my knees. I had passed. Even better, Artis was wrong. I was pretty enough to be living art. And, I was going to be an uzņika. Still, I barely understood the word, but it sounded better than my other prospects.
The atrium was cold and bright compared to the bath. I squinted until my eyes adjusted, following Rutgita to a plum-coloured divan. She gestured for me to sit.
I sank deeply into the cushion. If I weighed any more, it would have swallowed me whole.
“I am scarcely pleased with how this venture has progressed, so in Lady Pearl’s absence, I shall briefly relay to you the rules of the Butterfly House, which you now find yourself a novice of. The first: No drugs. If a guest offers, cheek the tablet. In case of powder, dispose of it discreetly. Make this sign — ” she raised her pointer finger without lifting her hand. “And he shall be escorted out. “Two: uzņika are to be admired, not manhandled. You are an intellectual and social companion. If propositioned, display the same sign with two fingers extended.”
“What does propositioned mean?” I asked.
Rutgita squinted at me before glancing down. "Ask Lady Pearl another night. For now, know that while you are training at the Butterfly House you shall never be given occasion to be alone with a guest and shall entertain here, in this atrium, alongside your sisters-in-learning and under Lady Pearl’s careful observation. Do you understand?”
“Very good. And…” she seemed to consider her next words with caution. “‘No’ is not a word within the Butterfly House’s walls. We are entertainers. Guests come here to forget the inconveniences and hardship with which their lives are overripe. However, the absence of an explicit ‘no’ is not an indication of a ‘yes’. You would do very well to remember that.”
How I could then say “no” if the situation required it, I had not a clue. Perhaps that was a lesson I'd take during my formal education. The rest did seem reasonable. I dare say I was grateful the Butterfly House encouraged so much structure. The children at the Powdery weren’t particularly nasty to one another, but there were a fair few instances of cattiness lingering in my memory.
“The fourth rule,” Rutgita said sharply. “Punctuality is a virtue. Lateness is never excused. Breakfast is served at moonset and supper at moonsrise. Miss either, and you shall not be fed. The same goes for your lessons, hosting guests, and sleep. Five: do not wrong your sisters-in-learning or the guests you entertain. Theft, assault, rumour-mongering, juvenile dramatics, stealing patrons, sabotage — none of this is tolerated. The sixth and final rule: you are not permitted to leave the launnal for any reason without the express permission and knowledge of Lady Pearl until you have been formally recognised as an uzņika. Do I make myself clear?”
“I understand, Serkana.”
“The penalty for breaking these rules is a scaled fine for the first instance and dismissal for the second. Now, your duties," Rutgita said.
I furrowed my brow. “Duties, Serkana?”
“You are a student — tebēza, as you are wise to remember — of the lowest rank. Your first lessons are in the discipline of service. Laundry, tidying, fetching refreshments, cooking meals, waking and helping your sisters-in-learning prepare to host guests: these shall be your duties, along with any other chores Lady Pearl may assign. You may speak no language other than Brisian, beginning now. Doing so is grounds for dismissal from the launnal — the Butterfly House and its surrounding campus.”
I wanted to ask how I could possibly accomplish these things without speaking, but if “now” meant “now, now,” it wasn’t worth it.
“Furthermore,” Rutgita began. “There is the matter of debt.”
I watched her attentively.
“During your time as a tebēza, you have no patron to sponsor your lifestyle. My brother invests a significant sum in all his fledgeling uzņika: the cost of transporting you to Örös, the price for which he purchased you, all the clothes, makeup, instruments, lessons, room and board, and so forth that are necessary to educate you. Until you acquire a patron, all your earnings as a tebēza shall be sent directly to him. If at any point before acquiring a patron you are dismissed from the Butterfly House, these earnings shall go towards repaying your debt, which is yet expected to be paid in full. Upon acquiring a patron, you shall receive every coin back to be used as you wish once your debt has been repaid.”
I gaped. That was an inconceivable amount of money. The notion that I owed anything for a choice I did not make rendered me speechless. I did not choose to leave Kandrisev. I did not choose to come here.
“Do you understand?” Rutgita asked.
Hesitant, I nodded.
“Very well. Wait right here for Lady Pearl to return. She shall show you your room and arrange for you to meet your elder sisters-in-learning. If you have need of my brother, ask her to send a note to the ambassador’s villa.” She pivoted and brisked out of the Butterfly House, her posture never once slipping, garnet skirts flowing out behind her.
Before the curtains, she stopped. “Has my brother made mention of your Brisian name?”
I struggled with whether to shake my head. Thinking better of it, I settled on a grimace.
“It’s Argita Nauve. From now on, you shall not be known as Marrow.” She slipped behind the curtain.
I tried to stuff my terror back inside me, but it forced its way out. Tears slid down my face, though I was careful not to make a noise. Gulls cackled in the distance and the sea crashed against the coast with the fury of a battering ram. I tried to think of how much I might already owe Artis. Two-hundred-fifty maugat I knew for a fact, but the worth of a maugat was unknown to me. Plus the costs of sailing to Örös, living here — did I have to repay him for the Minister’s inspection, too? I buried my face in the divan cushion to muffle my sobs.
Not only that, but they took my name. Who was Argita Nauve? That wasn’t me. I was Marrow. Marrow and that was final. Did Artis choose this? Was it some narcissistic plot Rutgita devised? Ar-gheetuh. What an ugly name. If they thought my identity was part of my debt, they were sadly mistaken.
Still, something broken in my head screeched at me to just be thankful, just be thankful, Divine Father damn me. But I couldn’t. This was malice. This was premeditated. This was a betrayal. I spent three years in the Powdery in Nilova. I spent ninety days aboard the Swell Dancer. I was torn away from my mother, my father, my clan… for this?
There was a reason this life was chosen for me. Just one, and neither charity nor pity had anything to do with it.
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