[The 6th day of Boedromion, year 4 of the 696th Olympiad, early autumn]
Arthur was watching morning children’s programmes when he heard the miserable retching sounds. Was that Skip? He tapped on the bathroom door and pushed it open.
“Oh, Skip, you look pretty bad,” he said. Martin was limp on the tiles, his pale face resting on the cool plastic of the toilet seat. Arthur cast about for something to help. “Can I get you anything? Breakfast? Coffee? Tea?”
Martin moaned, his watering eyes squinched shut. “Hemlock?”
“I don’t know if they have that kind of tea but I’ll check. Be back in a tick!” He jogged off and was back in a trice with a tray.
Martin had been able to pry himself from the floor and was now lolling against his bed’s headboard. He did look dreadful. “I asked the kitchen whether they carried hemlock, but when I explained and said it was for you, they just gave me this.” He settled the tray bearing water, weak milky tea and dry toast on the bedside table. “Oh, and Mum gave me tablets. D’you have a headache?” Without waiting for a reply he crushed two tablets between two spoons and passed the resulting powder to Martin.
Martin took the spoon with a trembling hand and swallowed, chasing the bitterness with a gulp of the tea Arthur handed him. He shuddered then sighed. “Thanks, Arthur.”
“No problem, Skip. I'm sorry you're not well. No one wants to be sick on their wedding day! Wow, just think of it, tonight you'll be married. And married to an immortal! That’ll be brilliant! Maybe you're queasy because you're excited? Sometimes I get so excited about something really brilliant it’s like my stomach is doing flip-flops.”
“Well yes, yes, my stomach is a bit queasy. But actually, Arthur...” Martin trailed off with a sigh. He was so frowny and grim that Arthur wanted to cheer him up.
“I'm so glad you invited us to your wedding. Weddings are brilliant! They are the best thing ever. Well, except there was this one that was not quite so brilliant. Actually, it sort of wasn’t a wedding because the groom didn't show.”
“Didn’t he? How - how awful.” Martin didn’t look as if it were awful, but he was a bit more cheerful. “What happened?”
“Well, Mum said he got cold feet and changed his mind, but the bride cried and then got angry and shouted it was that bi... Well, there was this lady-friend? Of the groom’s. Um, they ran off together. It wasn’t very nice of him, I don’t like it when that happens. But we still had the food and punch and cake and no use letting it all go to waste. Plus the band was there and ready to play so we had a party, even though no one got married.”
“Sounds like a perfect wedding to me,” murmured Martin, a small smile on his face.
“No, Skip, you got it all wrong. It wasn’t a wedding! Are you worried that your groom might not show up? I mean, he wasn’t here for the wedding feast or the bath. I bet he’s got cold feet too! Wow - a god getting cold feet! Can they get cold feet? But you don’t need to worry, Skip. I mean, he’s a god and they always get what they want, right?”
The smile slipped from Martin’s face. Arthur rushed onwards.
“But even if he does get cold feet we can still have a party with the food and dancing and everything. I know, we could make it a ‘welcome to MJN’ party for you and Douglas! That’d be brilliant! But I’m sure he’ll be there. Will your groom mind if we made the wedding celebration also a kind of welcome party for you and Douglas?”
Martin rubbed his face as if his head were hurting him again. “I don’t know, Arthur. When my groom comes, you can ask him.”
“All right!” Arthur beamed. He did love parties.
“I’m a bit tired now, Arthur.”
Martin eyed him with the same expression his mother sometimes got. How did he do that?
“So, thanks for the tea and toast.”
“You’re welcome!” There was a pause.
“I’m going to sleep now.”
“Right-o!” Arthur said, and slipped from the bed, happy he’d made Skip feel better.
Martin missed lunch, but recovered enough to watch telly with his family, talking over nothing in particular. It was comforting. Douglas disappeared to the hotel bar for ‘bird-watching,’ as he’d phrased it. Arthur had wanted to see the amazing birds that lived in a bar, but Carolyn had given Douglas a death-glare and sent him to the beach. All in all, not a horrible way to pass the time before his wedding. And the end of my life as I know it.
Douglas had been back to his ridiculing self today, joking about catching Martin’s bouquet at the wedding. There was no hint that’d he ever anything been other than awful. It made Martin squirm with embarrassment to remember what he’d said to Douglas in his drunken state. Martin hated that he’d been so vulnerable in front of the older man. Douglas, with his easy confidence and perfect... his perfect everything.
He ought to be an immortal’s consort, not me, Martin thought. Marrying a nameless horror. From what he’d seen of the man, Douglas would snark it to tears in no time. His thoughts must have shown on his face because when he glanced up from the telly, his mother’s eyes were on his, worried. He gave her a half-hearted smile and they turned back to the telly.
Carolyn breezed in, followed by a less-cheerful Arthur. “Well, I’ve news, though whether good or bad is up to you, Martin. I’ve just had a call from Douglas - he’s had to leave. There’s been a minor emergency and he won’t be able to attend tonight. A report from the police about people breaking into his house.”
“He’s not coming?”
Carolyn sniffed. “As to whether he’s been burgled or whether he’s just skulked off to be away from his co-workers, I cannot say. It’s his day off, and I can’t tell him to stay.” She appeared less than pleased at her lack of absolute authority over her wayward employee.
Martin’s heart fell. No, of course Douglas wouldn’t be here. Why should he be? Martin wasn’t a friend. He shoved down the treacherous pang of disappointment. “No, no, it’s fine. We’ll get along without him. Please, thank him for me? For... for getting our rooms and arranging the dinner for us.” He rose from the sofa and squared his shoulders. “Let’s eat, shall we?”
Even with Arthur’s cheeriness and Carolyn’s conversational gambits, dinner was a subdued affair. Martin couldn’t bring himself to do more than toy with the pan-fried sea bass and fennel salad. He gave it up as a lost cause. Arthur was more than happy to eat Martin’s portion of dessert.
After dinner, Simon, Caitlin and his mother followed him to the small altar niche set up in the hotel’s reception area. The late afternoon sun lit several painted tiles of various gods meant to aid travellers, business people, and of course lovers. To his surprise, his mother lit an incense stick and placed it in a tray full of burnt stubs in front the image of Eros rather than Hera. Wordlessly Caitlin and Simon poured a little wine into the clay cup.
Martin cupped the wild rose he’d chosen from a vase and laid it before the god. He had no prayers left, only a repeated, ‘Please, please!’ The lack of thunderclaps, heavenly light or booming voices came as no surprise. Why had he even expected an answer to his prayers? He ought to have known better. He should have been praying all his life that the gods took no notice of him instead.
His shoulders sagged and he went upstairs. The ritual pre-nuptial bath had to be taken alone, as his spouse was absent. Martin towelled off the water and wiped the mirror. His face was drawn and tired. He debated whether he should cut his hair short to indicate his purity and finish the traditional rites. Best not, he decided. His virginity had been lost years ago in a one-time encounter. To placate any gods watching he shaved, then snipped one curl with a pair of nail scissors and left it in the sink.
Simon was laying out his suit when Martin emerged wrapped in a towel. “You should have let me buy you a new suit, Martin. Monster or immortal, no one is going to be impressed by this old thing.”
“It doesn’t matter. No need to waste your money,” Martin said. “I thought it rather fit the situation.” The suit was black and several years old. He’d last worn it at his dad’s funeral.
Simon’s moustache twitched as though there were several things he’d like to say, a few of them quite sharp judging by his expression. But he only clasped Martin’s shoulder in a way meant to be heartening and left him alone.
Martin dressed, fingers fumbling with the tie his mother had picked out. He looked at himself in the bureau mirror and sighed. His hair was waving into fluffy curls from his bath. The suit was too tight across the shoulders. The over-wide tie around his thin neck just looked ridiculous. Martin pulled it off in annoyance. He reached for the matching handkerchief and paused, hand hovering. A thick brown envelope with a folded note taped to it sat on the bureau. He pulled the paper off and unfolded it.
Having had to clear out my locker when I left my former employer a bit precipitously, I left my box of belongings in the boot of my car. My laziness is your gain.
Though it's outre to give one’s own belongings as a wedding gift, I thought you might appreciate these. I won’t be needing them in my current position. I understand you’ll need them after the honeymoon.
Curious now, Martin lifted the bulky envelope and tore it open. Something fell out and he grabbed at the flash of gold. Epaulettes. Captain’s epaulettes.
The stiff edges of the rectangles cut into his hands until they threatened to bend as he gripped them. His breath came harsh and fast. He was closer to tears than he’d been since this whole nightmare had started.
Was Douglas mocking him? He knew, he knew Martin was terrified of what was to come. ‘Here, captain, enjoy these while you can. Good luck coming down from Olympus to fly aeroplanes again. If your beast of a husband doesn’t eat you first.’
Martin rubbed the back of his shaking hand across his eyes. No, that wasn't fair, he was getting worked up again. Douglas had been more than kind last night. It wasn’t Douglas’ fault that his present had touched the nerve-centre of Martin’s greatest fear.
He opened his palm again on Douglas’ gift. Captain. Douglas was saying... he was saying that he thought Martin would be a captain. That he’d fly again. That Martin would be okay.
Isn’t that what he meant?
Would he be okay?
He lifted an epaulette to his shoulder. The gold braid gleamed dully against the black of his jacket. He raised his chin and looked at himself in the mirror. “Captain Crieff,” he said to his reflection. “Of MJN Air. Captain Martin Crieff.” He straightened his shoulders. There. That was better.
“Arthur!” he shouted.
Arthur poked his head in the door. “You called, Skip? Wow, you look nice! Aren’t you going to wear white? I thought all brides wore white and a veil. Though I now I think about it, brides wear dresses. And you’re a man. Is there a special name for man-brides? I can’t remember. Still, I’m sure your groom will like -”
“Yes, fine, I am a man and this is my wedding dress - er, suit. Arthur, can you help me?”
“I love helping,” Arthur asserted.
Martin beamed at him, feeling better than he had in three days.
“Great. I need safety pins or one of those little hotel sewing kits. Oh, and a different tie. Would you mind finding them for me?”
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