Mari looked up and swallowed. She struggled to find her voice. A small noise scraped her throat. Dainan didn’t seem to hear her. Dainan moved, and Mari’s thoughts were distracted further by a strange, grating sound. He asked, “Are you just going to stand there?”
“No,” Mari said, gripping the headpiece. Her voice surprised herself. Mari’s hands shook.
Dainan crossed his arms and leaned against the wall. “Then what do you want?”
Mari hesitated again. She wanted answers, but it was more than that. She didn’t want to stay in that room. Not like she had been. What did she say? She peered through her hair. “I want… I desire to… to not be…”
She wanted to act like Rekema would, but she wasn’t Rekema. She couldn’t help herself. Stepping forward, letting her face reflect herself, whoever that was. She was herself, speaking her own words. Staring him down, Mari asked, “Is there a word for when you are without others? When you have no one but yourself, even when you don’t want to be?”
Dainan pushed off the wall. He eyed her, and Mari wondered if she shouldn’t have said anything. He bowed his head for a moment before speaking softly, “Yes, there’s a word for that. It’s called being alone.”
Mari shut her eyes. That word. She shivered; her heart shuddered. So cold. She drew her breath, forcing herself to meet his eyes. “Then what I desire is to not be alone.”
From the way he looked at her, Mari had the feeling he didn’t believe her, but she chose not to say anything. She couldn’t be sure, and what could she say anyway?
“So you came to me. As you can see,” Dainan said. He stepped back, raising his arms up. Mari squinted at the odd, bulky gray object around his wrists. He said, “I’m not exactly in a position to refuse you. I’d offer you a seat, but I don’t have any.”
Dainan dropped onto the ground. The scraping noise hit Mari’s ears, causing her to wince. She took a moment before following his example and sitting down from him. “I, uh, didn’t mean to come here… but… I am, uh, not good with words.”
He raised an eyebrow. “You didn’t seem to have any trouble before.”
Mari shook her head, searching for the right way to explain it. “Before was different. Those words weren’t my own.”
“What do you mean? I clearly remember them coming from you.” Dainan propped up his chin on his hand. Mari was distracted by the object on his wrist for a moment.
“I don’t know how to say it. It may have been my voice, but they weren’t my words.” Mari frowned, running a hand over the headpiece. “Can I ask you a question?”
Dainan was silent for a moment, staring at her with his brow knit together. He blinked and said, “Alright, but I have one condition.”
“Alright,” Mari said. She didn’t know what a condition was, but he would let her ask questions. That was all that mattered.
She started to lift the headpiece, but was stopped by Dainan’s voice. “Wait, you’re not even going to ask what it is before you agree?”
Mari paused, unsure of what was happening. She masked her confusion and played along. She set the crown down, “What is it?”
Dainan eyed her, and she thought of when Rekema would eye a rat before deciding whether or not to kill it. She swallowed thickly as he said, “Here’s my condition: for every question you ask that I answer, I’ll get to ask you a question and you answer.”
Mari stared at her hands. It sounded fine to her, but one thing made her hesitate. She fidgeted. “What if I can’t answer your questions?”
Dainan’s face twisted; Mari wished she understood what his expression meant. He said, “Then we can move onto a different question. Agreed?”
Mari tried to read him. She wasn’t good at it, but she didn’t think he was trying to trick her. She also told herself the even if he was, what would he accomplish? At the end of the day, he would be in the dungeon. She would have the headpiece; which meant something, she just didn’t know what.
“Agreed.” Mari nodded. She lifted the headpiece, making sure the light hit it. “You wore this once; does it have a name? What is it for?”
Dainan drew in a sharp breath. He reached out his fingers, taking his time, and let them skim over the edge. “You don’t know what it is? It’s called a crown; you’re supposed to wear it on your head, like you did when you came in.”
“No.” Mari frowned, frustrated with the idea she should know. “I didn’t know. I’ve been calling it a headpiece in my mind.”
There was a pause before Dainan spoke, “My turn. How come you didn’t know what it’s called?”
“I have never seen one before.” Mari’s grip on the crown tightened. “Why did you give it to me, that day, in the throne room?”
Dainan’s eyes widened. “Because you’re the queen.”
Mari groaned, dropping the crown. It was all too much. This was a bad idea. The burning sensation that rose in her chest. She should have stayed away. She was… she was… Mari felt like Balak did. It was awful.
Her voice rose as she said, “I don’t know what that means! Why do you and other humans expect me to know what’s happening when I don’t? I can’t know, not when everything is new to me and no one bothers to explain anything to me. I don’t even know the proper words for anything anymore!”
Mari stared at him. The only sound filling the room was her labored breathing. Her vision blurred slightly. She shut her eyes, clenching her fists.
“Take a deep breath. You’re not helping yourself by getting all worked up.” Mari opened her eyes to see Dainan had one hand out as if to stop her from doing anything else. She glanced down, and small red droplets ran down her palms. She wiped them off and looked back up. His expression was much different now than from before. Mari couldn’t put a name to it, but she was certain she had the unpleasant sensation written on his face. He said, “I didn’t mean to upset you. I was caught off guard. From now on, I will do my best to answer clearly without any judgment. Feel free to ask any questions about anything I say that confuses you.”
She took a deep breath, trying to erase her emotions. Dainan was right; it did her no good to yell at the only person she had to answer her questions. She clasped her hands together in her lap before giving Dainan a restrained nod. He smiled slightly; it was nothing at all like when the Seven smiled, not even when Muraad did. Dainan gestured towards her; the object around his wrists clanged as he moved. “How about you ask me another question?”
Mari opened her mouth and was about to ask more about the crown, but her mind went elsewhere. She couldn’t help but stare at his hands. Without meaning to, she asked, “What is that around your wrists?”
Dainan blinked and followed her gaze. “They’re manacles; they keep me from being able to run or attack the guards if I had the intent.”
Mari nodded, understanding the idea even if there were a few words that she didn’t quite get.
At her silence, Dainan looked up and asked, “You say everything is new to you, why?”
Mari wanted to stare at the ground, but the look in his eyes kept her from moving. She didn’t want to talk about herself, but she did agree to answer the questions that she knew the answers to. She sighed, saying, “Everything is new to me because, before now, I was always in the same place. Where I used to be is nothing like here.”
Dainan didn’t respond, Mari thought he was confused, but he chose not to ask at the moment. She stared at the manacles again. “What are they made of?”
“Metal,” Dainan said. Had she heard that word before? He shifted his legs. “Where did you live before here?”
Mari leaned against the wall. She closed her eyes; she could see it perfectly. How long had it been? It seemed like an eternity since she had last seen it. “It was a cottage. Behind it was a stream, and it surrounded by trees. So many trees. Occasionally, they took me out and we walked around, but I never saw where the trees ended. For the longest time, I just thought they went on forever. Muraad called it the middle of nowhere.”
“They? Muraad?” Dainan asked. Mari opened her eyes, and her heart sank.
“I, uh, believe it’s my turn.” Mari stuttered, keeping her eyes from his.
“Right,” Dainan said, ducking his head, “go ahead.”
Mari saw the crown sitting in front of her lap. She picked it up again. “You said you gave this to me because I’m queen. I vaguely remember being called that once, but what does a crown have to do with being a queen?”
Dainan reached a hand towards it. Instinctively, Mari let him take it. He held it between them. “Being a queen means you are the ultimate authority. Kings and queens wear crowns because of that. The crown is a symbol of your authority, of your power. Come here. ”
He lifted the crown, and Mari bowed her head. Dainan carefully slid the crown back onto her head. Mari didn’t know why, but it felt different when he put it on as opposed to when Rekema did. It felt… right.
Once he let go, she sat up again. She blinked. His mouth had pressed into a thin line, and his eyes were half closed. Mari didn’t know what to make of it.
He sat back. “So, there are a few things that I need clarification on. You said your words weren’t your own, even though you said them. Just now, you said mentioned a ‘they,’ and a ‘Muraad.’ What do you mean? Who are you referring to?”
Mari pulled her knees up and set her head on them. “It is … Um… They are… I call them the Seven. Muraad is one of them. They were the ones whose words you heard. They spoke through my voice. I do not know how better to say it.”
Dainan hummed. His face was neutral. Mari had no idea if he understood or not. Mari admitted to herself it would be nice not to be the only one confused for once. She cleared her throat and asked, “Why do kings and queens need a symbol of power?”
“It’s so everyone knows that they’re the king or queen. Without it, it’s not obvious. I mean, kings and queens don’t inherently look different from everyone else.” Dainan’s face softened. “Will you tell me more about the Seven? If it makes you upset, or if it’s too personal, you don’t have to.”
Mari paused, taking a moment to think about it. She didn’t want to talk about them, thinking about them left her with a dark, painful rolling in her gut. He called it alone; the thought that the Seven left her alone hurt. Why would she want to dwell on that pain? But… Mari was beginning to like Dainan. He answered her questions, and he didn’t make her feel stupid. Maybe talking to him about it wouldn’t be such a bad thing. She lifted her head up. “I’ll tell you about them. There’s Rekema, she’s in charge, and Muraad, who’s closest to her and who I like best. Then there’s Bidkar, the twins Mallory and Meeko, and then Apep and Balak. All of them have been with me since for as long as I can remember; although, my memory isn’t that great. They’re not like me or you; I’ve always known that. But that day, in the throne room, they were with me, but you only saw me; it finally became real to me.”
“Why are you the only one who can see them?” Dainan asked.
Mari shrugged, almost tipping the crown off her head. “I don’t know. I just know I’m the only one who can see or hear them, except when they take over. They can control my movements and use my voice to speak their words. Every time I’ve seen you, or really anyone, they’ve been in control. This is the only time I’ve ever talked to another human with my own words.”
“You expect me to believe that?” Dainan asked. His voice did not sound unkind. It came across to Mari as utter confusion; she understood. It was as if the idea was so new and strange he just couldn’t quite get it. Mari couldn’t blame him.
“I have no other answer. I have no proof. How can I prove what only I see or hear?” Mari stood up. She didn’t want to go, for she had so many more questions, but something in her told her it was time to leave. Mari could tell she had given Dainan much to think about. She should let him be.
Mari headed toward the door, forcing her gaze ahead. Rekema wouldn’t look back.
“Will you come back?”
Mari took a breath. She didn’t have to always do what Rekema would because she was not Rekema. Mari didn’t quite know what that made her, but she knew it brought her to that cell. She glanced behind her, and the frown on his face caught her off guard. “Do you want me to? You just said yourself you don’t believe me.”
Dainan glanced her over, looking at the crown. He gave her a small unhappy smile. “I desire not to be alone.”
“Then I will come back.” Mari returned the smile. It didn’t reach either of their eyes. She left, and as she let the guard lead her back to her room, she couldn’t help but be pleased with herself. She enjoyed talking with someone who would listen. Whether or not he believed was a different matter, but he had listened to her, let her talk. It was new, but Mari found she liked this particular new.
* * *
Mari knelt; her hands filled her sight. They were caked in brown and red. She tried to breathe, but every shaky, shuddering breath felt like a knife in her chest. She forced herself to look up. Her vision blurred. She rubbed at her eyes; the grime smeared across her skin. She blinked, and when her vision cleared, she gasped, wincing at the pain in her chest.
There were so many humans all around her. No one moved, except for herself. Houses, buildings, she had seen them once, when she had first broken through the wall, they were gone. All of them were scattered in pieces across the ground.
With a grunt and more pain, Mari forced herself to stand up. She swayed, and for once, no one caught her, forcing her upright. The only thing keeping her upright was herself, frail and weak as she was.
She coughed, trying to spit out the rough, dry feeling in her throat. Mari stumbled a few steps forward. “Is anyone here?”
She glanced around. No one answered. She forced herself to keep walking. “Anyone?”
She raised her voice, still searching, “Anyone else? Anyone at all?”
Her foot hit a chunk of stone. She hissed as she forced herself up from her fall. She choked at the pair of open eyes right in front of her. The crown rested in his hands on the ground.
She shot up, scrambling to get away from the figure in front of her. She twisted and turned; her hair flew about blocking her vision as she spun. “Muraad? Rekema? Mallory? Meeko? Bidkar? Apep? Balak?”
“Who’s there?” Mari could not find anyone. She bowed her head, and her shoulders shook. “Please, anyone, anyone at all. Don’t leave me alone here.”
Something moved; she heard it.
Pain erupted in her stomach. She grabbed it, stifling her groans.
Pain in her head. She held it, tearing at her hair, unable to stop the inhuman shriek which tore from her throat.
“Then let’s keep going. There’s always more left.”
She tore at her ears, breaking skin, but her actions did nothing to stop the voice.
“Always more. More, until there’s nothing. No one left.”
Mari’s voice gave out. She could make no more sound, but the voice didn’t stop. It was what the voice said next that finally registered with her. When she could no longer speak, Mari finally realized.
“No one left in this forsaken land. Do you feel it? Now that you’ve gotten a taste of it, how can you not? That pure, utter desire? The desire to leave nothing left? To leave this in your wake?”
Mari turned around, seeing herself wearing the stained crown.
It was then, always then that she woke up, screaming, crying, tearing at herself as if she could somehow tear the nightmare out of herself with her hands.