“They’re on their way, your Majesty.” A guard came into the throne room. His voice echoed around the room.
Rekema had Mari perched on the throne, Rekema was either unaware or unconcerned at how uncomfortable it was for Mari. Mari acknowledged it was beautiful, but what did it matter if it was beautiful when it was bad at doing what it was meant to? Her mind was wholly devoted to the question. Well… as much of her mind as she could use in her current state.
Her concentration was disturbed by the Seven’s movement behind her. She had been on the throne for a while, waiting for the people Rekema sent for. Apparently, they were important. Rekema had called them scholars. Muraad told her they were intelligent humans who had answers for them. Mari’s mind drifted to these people and their answers. She wasn’t sure what questions Rekema was going to have her ask, but Mari had a few of her own. Although, she doubted she’d get the chance to voice them.
Mari heard herself speak, “It is in everyone’s best interests that you bring them now.”
With the way Rekema’s voice sounded to Mari, she wouldn’t want to be the scholars when they found out how long Rekema had been waiting.
“Yes, Your Majesty.” The guard stepped out of the room, keeping his head down.
Rekema was completely still, her claws resting on the back of the throne. Muraad was on her right and Bidkar her left. The twins climbed over Mari and everything else they could get their hands on. Balak paced, and Apep leaned against the wall.
Everyone stopped moving when the doors started to open. Rekema pulled Mari up straighter, and the headpiece slid, in danger of falling off at the next movement.
Several guards came in with a man and woman dressed in long, dark clothes. The woman’s eyes narrowed at the sight of Mari. The man reached out and caught her wrist. It seemed to be a strange gesture, but Mari shrugged it off.
Rekema pulled Mari out of the chair, and she staggered toward the new arrivals. Rekema cleared Mari’s throat and said, “I sent for the smartest scholars in this land, and they bring me you.”
“Your Majesty, we have dedicated both of our lives to the pursuit of knowledge. I am Aeary and this is my husband, Prentiss,” the woman said.
“What can you tell me about the history of magic in this city?” Mari was maneuvered closer, and her voice filled the room. Had she ever been so loud before? Wait… history? She didn’t know what Rekema wanted with magic history, but Mari hardly ever understood why the Seven did what they did.
The man, Pre—? The name was starting to slip from her grasp. He coughed and said, “There’s not much really, magic is much stronger in the other, eastern kingdoms. Occasionally, in times of crisis, the rulers of this kingdom would call on those with magic for help, but very rarely.”
“Tell me, what kind of spells? Where were they cast?” Rekema asked through Mari. Mari’s feet slapped against the cold floor. The guards backed away. They looked at each other, readjusting their grips on their weapons. The woman, Aea—? Her fists clenched. Mari’s head swam. This time it was worse. She could hardly hold onto any independent thought.
“We don’t know,” the woman snapped. An image of a fox with its teeth bared, snarling, appeared in her head.
Mari was stopped in her tracks. She felt her shoulders roll, and Rekema tsked through her. “You don’t know?”
Her stare chilled Mari to the bone.
The man held the woman’s hand. Why?
A few more steps, and Rekema and Mari spoke, “Alright, I’ll give you one more chance. If you can’t tell me that, then tell me everything you know about the eastern kingdoms’ magic forces.”
The pair exchanged a long glance. Mari remembered what happened to the fox.
The man squeezed her hand and gave her a nod.
“We don’t know anything about the eastern kingdoms and their magic forces.” The woman smirked, keeping her head held high. Bared fangs.
“See, why don’t I believe you?” Rekema let go of Mari. Mari pitched forward; arms swaying. The headpiece crashed onto the floor. Her head throbbed. She blinked, unable to remember what was happening. Rekema said, “Bidkar, take it from here.”
“Gladly.” Bidkar stepped forward. Mari rolled up as Bidkar took over, losing her senses. With a small smile, bright eyes, and a vicious cry, Mari lunged forward.
The fox, Mari recalled. It had taken Mari days to get the red out from under her nails.
The man screamed. Mari shut her eyes, but heard a crack. Several more cracks. Mari realized Bidkar was breaking fingers.
Bidkar had her drop him and stumble towards the woman. The woman stared her down. Bidkar dug Mari’s hand into the woman’s shoulder, but she didn’t cry out. The sounds were sickening as well as what she felt beneath her fingers. Bidkar squeezed Mari’s hand tighter; the woman’s knees buckled. Bidkar pushed, and the woman fell.
Bidkar pulled Mari’s hand away. Her hand was soaked; it dripped. She had Mari grab the woman by the hair and pull back. Her shriek clawed at Mari’s ears. Something grabbed at the hem of her dress. Without sparing a glance, Bidkar took Mari’s hand and smacked the man, knocking him back.
“Do you know now?” Mari heard herself ask. The woman tried to pry Mari’s hands off her hair. Her nails cut into Mari’s hands.
She coughed, spitting onto the ground. “No.”
“Oh well,” Bidkar and Mari said. Mari knew Bidkar was the farthest thing from upset.
Faster than Mari could follow, she slammed the woman’s head into the ground. The man yelled in the background. Her head throbbed.
After the third slam, Rekema ordered, “Back off, Bidkar. We want them alive.”
With a noise of disgust, Bidkar had Mari drop the woman. The man crawled towards the woman, saying something, but it was too distorted for Mari to understand. Maybe it was her name. Mari felt she should know it, but she couldn’t remember it.
Bidkar smirked, and Mari watched her foot connect with his head. It snapped back, and blood dripped from his nose. Without missing a beat, Rekema took over. Mari’s mind clouded even further. They called out, “Guards! Take them to the dungeon, and separate them.”
The sound of her feet echoed through the room. Rekema had her scoop up the headpiece before marching her back out of the room. It turned red.
“I know that wasn’t what we wanted…” Mallory started as Mari was walked up the stairs, fighting the sick rising in her throat.
“But that was fun,” Meeko finished.
Mari had only heard the word a few times before, but she didn’t think she liked this fun.
* * *
Mari watched the Seven whirl around her bedroom. Muraad sat behind her on the bed, playing with her hair. Mari stared at the headpiece in her hands. She asked, “Rekema?”
“Not now, we have to go,” Rekema said. Mari blinked and bowed her head further.
Barely lifting her eyes, Mari turned to Muraad. “You are leaving again?”
Muraad let go of her hair. “Yes, but we won’t be long.”
Mari leaned against the post, stretching her legs and moving her feet across the plush fabric on the ground. Apep and Bidkar left. The twins were ignoring Rekema’s orders. Muraad sighed as Rekema yelled at them. “You’ll be fine. You’ll barely even notice we’re not here.”
The twins left, sticking their tongues out as they went. Balak followed a moment after. Mari knew the Seven liked to say they told the truth, but she could feel it in her gut when they chose to lie. Mari put the headpiece in one of the boxes from the dresser. When she turned around, Rekema and Muraad were gone.
Mari looked at her reflection, wondering if she would spend the next days just staring at it. She sighed, lying back on the bed. Mari stared up at the ceiling even though she could already see it with her eyes closed. When that became too boring, she rolled onto her side, closing her eyes and resigning herself to her new life of waiting.
The days went by, and Mari was left with her thoughts. More often than not, they turned to her broken and hazy memories of the throne room. She thought about the scholars. There were many humans in the castle, but the scholars seemed to be the ones who knew the most about humans, kingdoms, and even magic. Mari didn’t quite understand the term, but thought it sounded interesting and important.
Mari began having the strangest sensation. As if two people were pulling on her in opposite directions. Even more, Mari would say she was torn in half. She had such a problem on her hands. She had never gone anywhere without the Seven, but… she had questions about everything. The more she waited, the more questions she had, but she had no one to answer them. The scholars were her first thought. Surely they, of all people, could answer her many questions, but Mari remembered something. The scholars hadn’t answered any of the Seven’s questions, but maybe they would answer hers if she wasn’t with the Seven. Maybe it was just the questions the Seven were asking; maybe they would answer hers if she asked the right ones in the right way.
She felt sick at the thought of it, and her feet wore a path in the fabric on the floor. She wasn’t sure she could approach the scholars, not without the Seven, but could she really spend the next however many days wearing a hole in the floor? Her reflection didn’t answer her. She coughed, a suffocating feeling taking hold of her. Her heart shuddered. She couldn’t.
She stared herself down. Mari set her jaw and opened part of the dresser. She picked up the headpiece. What did it mean? What was so important about it that Rekema had her wear it every time she left the room? She turned it over in her hands; it glinted in the light. It seemed to mean something to everyone except her. The feeling tightened around her chest. She felt the cold seep into her core. The feeling was deep within her, and it was awful. It was worse than what Apep had made her feel. It was personal. Could she do it?
The headpiece, maybe it was all she needed. No one had to know the Seven weren’t with her; she was the only one who could see them after all. The feeling in her being… if she hid it, acted like Rekema no one would know. She could have her questions answered and be back before the Seven knew it.
Mari, for the first time in her life, made a decision without the Seven.
She put the headpiece on and walked to the door. Her eyes closed for a moment before she set her shoulders back, took a deep breath, and lifted her head. She opened the door and walked down the steps, trying to ignore how her heartbeat thundered and her footsteps echoed.
The guard at the bottom bowed his head at the sight of her. “Your highness.”
Mari refused to show any emotion; for she knew whatever she was feeling would not help her create the effect Rekema had on people. She opened her mouth, and all of her thoughts left her head. She shut her mouth, and the guard looked up, eyes widening. He prompted, “Is there anything I can do, your highness?”
Mari forced herself to keep going. She couldn’t stop now. She hardened her voice, and her mind scrambled for the right words. “Yes, you can take me to see…”
Something occurred to Mari. A flash of a memory appeared. The woman scholar, regardless of the Seven’s presence, or of the proper questions, Mari didn’t believe she would answer, but maybe the man would. She tried to remember his name, but her mind was infuriatingly blank. She had to say something. “Take me to see the man from the throne room.”
She stuttered; her mind whirling. What had Rekema called them again? It started with an “s,” but now she couldn’t remember. She had sent them where? Mari straightened her posture. “He’s important, and he should be in a… dungeon.”
“The man from the throne room?” The guard furrowed her brow.
Mari nodded; her chest loosened ever so slightly. “He would know a lot about the kingdom, very, uh, intelligent.”
She hoped she used the word correctly. She could feel her blood rushing through her veins. Mari hated how she had forgotten anything that could have been of use. The emotion that caused her heart to race had also wiped her mind clean, not that there was much left after the Seven were done with her anyway.
The guard said, “I will take you to him, your highness. If you will follow me.”
Mari nodded; her throat closed up. The headpiece shifted when she moved. She resisted the urge to touch it. Rekema made it feel so easy to balance it.
The guard led the way, and Mari was pleased to follow someone again. He seemed to know who she was talking about, so Mari stopped worrying herself over remembering any more helpful details. She didn’t think remembering his name would help her now that they were already going to him. Maybe he could explain why she forgot if he was as knowledgeable as Rekema said.
It wasn’t a long walk, but for Mari, who as of late, had been walking the length of a room, it felt like a long time before they stopped. They stopped in front of a door, and he took out a strange circle, with pieces of shiny material hanging off of it. He took one off and handed it to her. “He’s in there, your highness. I assume you want privacy, and he’s restrained, so he poses no threat, Your Majesty.”
Most of that went over her head, so Mari just nodded. She didn’t think she could say anything that wouldn’t make her feel stupid. Without betraying her emotions, she took the object from him and walked up to the door. She hesitated before she saw a small hole that appeared to match the carved edge of her object. Her hand shook as she put it in there, wondering if that was right. She glanced behind her and saw the guard still watching. She fingered the remaining section that stuck out from the door, turning it slightly. There was a click, and Mari hoped that was a good noise. She pushed on the door and it moved. Masking a sigh of relief, Mari stepped into the room.
The first thing she noticed was it was small, comforting. It was like her cottage.
Mari turned and saw someone sitting just outside of the light. All her courage left her as well as her voice. She couldn’t move. The figure stood up and came closer to the meager light that filtered through a small window.
She narrowed her eyes, frowning. This wasn’t the man she meant. She dug in her mind for his name, feeling a sense of importance about it. It took her a moment, but it came to her. She whispered, “Dainan.”
His gaze burned, and Mari was struck by how he looked nothing like the man who had stood before her no too long ago, in the throne room. He was filthy, hair unkempt, hunched over slightly. She realized her mistake. She should have been clearer.
“Should I be flattered by the fact you chose to remember my name or by the fact you came to see me?”
Mari didn’t know what the word “flatter” meant, but he spoke to her at least. Taking a step closer, she felt the headpiece slide more. She caught it before it fell, bringing it in front of her. She ran her hands over it. Dainan wasn’t the man she was looking for; he was no scholar, but maybe he could still answer her questions. He was king, whatever that meant. The guard thought he was intelligent, and Dainan had spoken to her easily. It was better than nothing.