Ceres had been crying a lot lately. She didn’t really understand why. During six years of hard training, constant mind games, solitary confinement, and the ever-present fear of the bomb in her chest, she really only cried like once a day, before she fell asleep. Maybe twice if she got a particularly bad beating. Now, she broke down into tears maybe ten times a day, a statistic made more impressive by the fact that she spent most of the day sleeping.
She was finally free. She should be happy. No more enforced training. No more mind games. She had been rescued by the same people she had been sent to plot against. She even managed to somehow convince them that she was one of them, for them to take her in. And yet she cried over the smallest things. Yesterday, she spilled some water and just lost it. The day before, she started bawling when she read one of Mars’ sad poems. Right now? She was crying because she cried too much. Most of the time, she didn’t even know why she was crying. She felt totally useless.
She couldn’t even hide her tears. Someone was always by her side, on all hours of the day. They had moved her back to their apartment when she had woken up, then turned her room into a lounge of sorts, complete with comfy couches and a portable stove for cooking, and on occasion brewing the potions she needed to recover. Whenever any of them had some free time from preparing for the upcoming defence against the Calamity, they would spend it in her room. At least they were nice about it and pretended not to notice when she went all leaky.
Her rescuers were a scary, warlike bunch. Epione Felidae was a veritable tyrant with an iron fisted grip over the workings of the medical cell of the army. She had taken to issuing orders from Ceres room, ostensibly so she could better respond if and when her newly generated heart and lungs malfunctioned. It gave her a first-row seat to one unfortunate medic trainee quaking in her boots as Epione unleashed her acid tongue on her. When she left, trying her best not to simply make a dash for it, Ceres was sure that if given a choice, the young girl would rather face the Calamity. Alone. And unarmed.
Her room overlooked the yard and over six hours a day, it would contain the form of Deimos exercising her martial arts and magic. In the three days since her revival, she had counted exactly six ironwood training dummies turned into sawdust under the might of her spell and fist. She remembered her conversation with the girl in the carriage in front of the gates of Patera and gulped. Now that there was no Geas driving her on to outwit and manipulate them, she found them thoroughly intimidating.
Mars came over to check on her health in the morning. He was dressed differently from usual. Instead of his customary shirt and string-drawn pants, he was attired in full military garb. On his left shoulder, the Earth token for the Swayamvar was sewn into his shoulder pad. The colour of his dress was a dark blue, with black accents, the hues of a Lieutenant. He had been busy with his duties these last few days. Rushing about in a hectic manner, preparing for a siege and the subsequent war. Yet he always took time out to visit her.
He mixed a herbal tonic for her to drink. He’d made one every day so far. They were pretty nasty tasting, but she hadn’t coughed since yesterday, so it was probably working as well. Her husband was an accomplished alchemist. He was a handsome, accomplished man with authority in his grasp and yet, he still let her call him that. She had cried again.
After Mars left, she watched Phobos leisurely knitting in a corner of the room, the soft ‘tinks’ of needle against needle sounding out a soothing, almost hypnotic melody as she watched balls of wool shrink and cloth form in their stead. She had never noticed it before, busy as she was scheming, but even though at first glance, it looked as if Phobos was simply performing a mundane task, in actuality, she was exercising her mana.
Every thread was delivered to its location with a precise application of Shadow Walk and throughout the process, she never let her cloak of shadow stealth dissipate, making it harder for Ceres to keep her in sight. Now that she had nothing else to do but think about things, Ceres recalled that Phobos would always seem to appear out of nowhere whenever she needed something from her. Outwardly, it might seem that she was the least assiduous, given how busy Mars was and how hard Deimos trained. But, in fact, she had turned her training into a part of her daily life. Every task another step down the martial path.
She felt useless sitting around doing nothing, so she got up and to try find some way to help out. Everyone shooed her away and told her to rest, except for Deimos. Ceres thought the fellow orphan understood how frustrated she felt. Just like she had been the first to embrace her after she had told them her story.
Deimos handed Ceres a knife and some vegetables, and asked her to peel and chop them for dinner. Ceres wiped her tears and settled down, letting her mind focus on peeling and chopping.
She sat close to the fire next to Veer Felidae, while they ate their dinner. It was delicious as always, grilled meat, some roasted vegetables, and some soup with grains in it. She cried during her first meal with them. She’d forgotten the feeling of sharing a table with people she didn’t have to keep her guard up against.
She had felt some of it when she shared a table with Mars, Phobos and Deimos back at the capital, but she had been too preoccupied by the Geas to truly appreciate the feeling. Spices had been liberally used. Surprising, as they were quite rare this close to the border. Unless Phobos was using spices because she was awake? To celebrate? Damn, she was crying again.
She looked at Veer Felidae to try to figure him out. He was the leader around here. A tall, densely muscled tiger-man, with close-cropped orange hair, and golden eyes that scared the hell out of her. He gave off a very no-nonsense vibe, walking around, straight-backed, tight-laced, and eyes that are always glaring. When he smiled was the scariest. Like you were a meal he found, and he was starving. She had no idea why he saved her. Letting her die would have been the best choice to stave off complications in this time of imminent war. Wasn’t that what all nobles were supposed to do? Put their career first? The Felidae were a strange bunch.
He wasn’t all bad though. Around meal times, when the food was almost ready, he would appear out of nowhere, with the same taciturn look as always. His tail gave him away though. It lashed around furiously around mealtimes. The same with Deimos. No one pointed it out though. Mars and Phobos, the cooks, smiling as they watched them race to finish their meals and ask for seconds. Even with all her etiquette classes, Ceres never did understand how Veer Felidae managed to look dignified even as he ate so fast.
“How are you feeling, girl?” He always spoke slowly and quietly to her, like he was scared that a loud enough voice would snap her in half.
“Much better than yesterday. I haven’t been coughing.”
“Good.” Same dialogue every day, same scary smile. He stood up to leave.
“I haven’t properly thanked you.” He turned to her with a quizzical look. “For saving me. Just thank you so much. I don’t know how to ever repay you, and everyone else, for just how much you’ve done for me, but I will, even though I’m so useless. I’ll pay you back, for sacrificing your arm, and for Mars’ shattered mindscape, and helping me so much, with the Geas and…” God dammit, she was going to cauterize her tear ducts.
He stood around for some time while she cried. After she calmed down a bit, he spoke.
“Look me in the eyes, girl. Know what I say for truth.” She looked up at him timidly.
“There is no need for thanks or repayment. You became one of us the day you married my son. All we’ve done is rescue one of ours. Righted a grave wrong. All you have to do now, is focus on healing. Rest easy.” His smile wasn’t so scary this time.
She gave up. She didn’t think she would ever stop crying.
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