My chest hurt as I watched Ceres cover her mouth to repress her sobs. Standing, she gathered her clothes from where they lay strewn on the floor, donning them hastily.
I wanted to speak but didn't know what to say.
As she made her way to the door, I raised my hand as if to stop her but halted midway. The hesitation cost me as she managed to unlatch the door.
The door slammed shut and I was left alone in the room. Touching my face absentmindedly, my hand came away wet.
My hand fell powerlessly to the bed and I flopped down on it, staring at the ceiling blankly.
After a long while, I dragged myself off the bed and set about dressing myself. My movements were overly methodical, my mind trying to distract me from the image of her desolate back by focusing on an immediate task.
Smoothing out the last crease, I wiped my face with my sleeve and left the room.
Trudging down the stairs, I concentrated on putting one foot before the other as all sorts of emotions spun around in my mind.
Sorrow. Worry. Anger.
The hall was empty when I reached it save for the barkeep.
Walking up to him, I took a seat on a stool in front of him and placed a coin on the table.
"Wine." My voice was hoarse.
He unquestioningly pocketed the coin and set the glass he had been polishing in front of me before filling it with a burgundy liquid from a bottle he drew out from under the counter and uncorked.
I brought the glass to my lips and tilted my head back, taking a large gulp.
The strong spirit burnt as it made its way down my throat, making me gasp and cough. It was my first time drinking and I was unprepared for the acrid taste. Some of the drink splashed on my clothes as I went into a coughing fit.
Recovering, I eyed the rest of the liquor in the glass warily. I had no idea how people could bear to drink the stuff.
But, I had heard that drink could numb the mind and right now, the last thing I wanted to do was feel.
So, I forced myself to take another swig, then another.
A numbing warmth spread from the pit of my stomach, warming my body, causing my face to flush.
As the potency of the alcohol kicked in, I felt my emotions fade within a comfortable buzz of sensations.
When I tried to take another swig, I found the glass empty. I don't know why but the sight of the empty glass made me sad. It reminded me of things gone forever.
So, I ordered a refill.
The world swayed around me, the colours grew dim. I tossed back the last of the drink and slammed the glass onto the table.
Leaning back, I almost fell off the stool due to my disturbed balance. Reaching for my purse, I found it bereft of coins. Only then did I notice the multitude of glasses strewn over the table.
Did I drink all of that? I was surprised.
Just as I was about to open my mouth to ask if the inn took credit, the door slammed open and Uncle strode in.
"There you are. We were getting worried about you. Do you even know the ti-me?"
His voice trailed off as he took in the sight of my inebriated state and the empty glasses on the table.
His expression grew grim and the shadows on his face darkened to match his emotions.
His voice was quiet as he spoke, "Where is Ceres?"
Turning to him tipsily, I replied with great difficulty, my words slurred by drink, "Shesh gawne."
If his face was a thundercloud, now the silver lining had disappeared.
Tossing a few coins on the counter, he told the barkeep: "I'll be taking him."
Grabbing me by my arm, he pulled me to my feet and dragged me to the exit. I staggered and would have tumbled onto my face if not for him holding me up. The liquor sloshed about in my stomach and made me feel like I would throw up at any time.
Once outside, he pulled me into the shadows.
The darkness pressed into me from all sides, thoroughly disorienting me as I was forcefully shadow walked for the second time in the day.
Suddenly, the shadows retreated and the light hammered into my eyes. Before I could orient myself, I felt myself become weightless before with a loud splash, I fell into the water.
I cried out in surprise, releasing a long string of bubbles as I sank into the lake. The shock of being thrown into the lake sobered me up somewhat and I struggled to right myself.
My long hours of swimming kicking in I steadied myself and began to kick powerfully, propelling myself towards the light.
After quite a while without reaching the surface, it struck my alcohol addled mind that I was swimming in the wrong direction. It was night and the lake glowed from the crystals at its bottom.
Jackknifing underwater, I switched directions and swam upwards with powerful strokes.
I sputtered and coughed as my head cleared the water. Paddling to keep myself afloat, I saw Uncle overlooking me as he stood upon his own shadow on the surface of the lake.
Before I could say anything, he reached down, grabbed my collar and shadow walked.
We came out of the shadow of one of the light posts by the shore and he let go of me. Staggering from the rough handling, I supported myself by grabbing onto one of the bamboo poles that made up the rigging of the post.
I bent over and threw up the contents of my stomach the acrid stench of alcohol permeating the air.
When I finally had nothing left in my stomach after dry heaving several times, I straightened up shakily, wiping my mouth with my sleeve.
Turning around I faced my Uncle. He spoke, "Do you know that Ceres hasn't returned home yet? While you were drowning yourself in drink, we were waiting for you, worried. We never thought the two of you wouldn't be together otherwise we would be worrying even more."
He continued, "When Phobos' ma sent the two of you out on a walk, she meant for you to talk out your differences… not quarrel and part ways."
He took a step forward and grabbed me by my sopping wet shoulders. "I know… I heard from my wife that the Duchess played a dark hand. And believe you me, we will be asking her some uncomfortable questions… but you married Ceres after all. She is your wife!"
He shook my shoulders. "There will always be trouble in marriages. I would have liked to believe that if you ever got into a quarrel with Phobos, you would resolve your differences through mature discussion instead of throwing an emotional tantrum." He shook his head and let go of my shoulders.
Taking a step back, he sighed. "Seeing your performance today… I'm disappointed. Marriage is a sacred institution. While the Duchess wronged you first, what you did today, pushing your wife away… isn't much better."
My mind was totally chaotic. The alcohol, the dunking in the lake, the stream of berating… it was too much for me to process. My brain felt like it was filled with starch.
Without giving me a chance to speak, Uncle turned his back on me and started walking away. "Don't speak now when you aren't in your right mind. Go home. The women are worried about you. I'll find your wife for you. This is my city and no one and nothing can get by under my nose here."
With that he was gone, melding into the shadows. Leaving me alone in the park, dripping wet and crushed with guilt.
Mars is a sheltered kid with low social interaction skills... he needs to build some character by experiencing some ups and downs... if you don't like that skip the next few chapters and come back when his character is finished being moulded... Then you can get the finished product and the action of the First Trial.
Also, note the name of this volume... Flame and Trial. the Trial does not refer to the Swayamvar but this.
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