Mari gasped for air as she screamed and writhed about, unaware of anything other than the nightmare.
Someone grabbed Mari’s arms, holding them away from herself as she thrashed on the bed. She kicked her legs; the sheets fell away, and her foot connected with an arm. Mari opened her eyes, wincing at the rush of light. Muraad came into her field of vision and was holding her wrists together. She took a deep breath, and he let go, stepping back. “You know you nearly gave me a heart attack. Well, if I had a heart.”
Mari sat up and leaned against the pillows, pushing her tangled hair out of the way. “Where, uh, where are the others?”
“They’ll be along in a minute. Something important came up at the last minute.” Muraad took a seat on the edge of the bed. “Rekema sent me ahead to get you ready.”
“For what?” Mari climbed off the bed, looking up at Muraad.
“She didn’t say, but I’m assuming we’ll try again with the scholars,” Muraad said, facing away from Mari as she changed into her dress.
“Oh…” Mari said as she pulled the skirt into place. What she remembered about the scholars was hazy, but what she did remember wasn’t good.
“But,” Muraad said and turned, patting the place next to him, “while we have a moment, do you want to tell me about that dream?”
Mari obediently did so. She fiddled with her skirt. “What about it?”
Muraad sighed, taking her shoulder and turning her to face him. “What happened in it?”
Mari glanced up briefly. Her hands twisted into her skirt. Her nails pierced through the cloth. “Well, I’m, uh, not sure. There were a lot of people, and they, uh, didn’t move. I…”
“What else?” Muraad gripped the covers, bunching them under his fists.
Mari opened her mouth, but froze seeing his cold eyes in front of her. His eyes had been alive yesterday, but the only thing she saw was the dream. She was shocked out of it when she felt a pulling on her. A moment later, the rest of the Seven appeared, and a wave of heat hit her. The air was as hot as boiling water. She blinked and realized it was from the Seven’s rolling emotions. Mari thought she would be sick.
Muraad stood up. “What is it?”
“Ugh!” Rekema threw up her hands, and her claws flashed in the light. Mari moved back on the bed. “You want to know what happened after you left?”
“And he got her started again,” Mallory said to her twin. Rekema and Muraad walked off to the other side of the room.
Mari couldn’t understand what they were saying. Their voices were too low, and Balak and Apep carried on another hushed conversation. Mari tried though; she caught a few words, but she didn’t know them. Mari considered that they might be speaking another language. Mari watched them snap and hiss at each other. Their hands moved wildly; Rekema pushed Muraad away.
Everyone turned to look at Rekema as Muraad regained his balance. She tossed her hair with a scowl. “There’s nothing we can do about it now!”
No one spoke for a moment. Meeko hung onto his sister’s skirt, and Mallory shifted her weight. Muraad let out a sigh and plopped back down on the bed, but there was no sign of his presence. Balak cleared his throat, “So, what do we do now?”
Rekema smiled, and Mari pulled her knees up to her chest. “I have a wonderful idea. I think we can make this work in our favor after all.”
“Whatever it is, it sounds perfect,” Balak laughed.
Muraad reached over and rubbed Mari’s shoulder. Her stomach contorted, and a burning rose in her throat.
* * *
“Bring them all out!” Mari and Rekema screeched. “I don’t care who, I just want a crowd!”
“Your Majesty—” someone said. One of the guards stepped towards her.
Mari was whipped around and backhanded him. The man fell to the ground. Was that the man who led her to Dainan? Her throat burned. “Do it or you’ll be part of the example!”
The rest of the guards muttered their assent and scurried out of sight. Her mind clouded from Rekema’s control over her. All she felt was Rekema’s frustration and rage.
They were outside. The wind buffeted her hair, obscuring her sight. The Seven were scattered about the area. She was in front of the castle. People had started to come out of their homes to see their queen.
Mari didn’t understand. She had just been in the room with the Seven, and before she realized it, she was outside, screaming at people. Had she screamed something about dungeons and prisoners? Mari hoped it didn’t have to do with Dainan, his belief in her or not, she didn’t want the one person willing to talk to her get involved with the Seven. She didn’t remember things going well for him the last time he encountered the Seven, and she had a feeling the next time he did they would leave him far worse off than before.
“Your Majesty, there’s simply too many to bring out.” A guard appeared behind her, bending over to catch his breath. He kept his eyes on the ground. “We’re bringing out those who can easily walk and leaving those who would require assistance.”
“Fine,” Rekema and Mari snapped, “And gather the people. This is important.”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” the guard said and hurried off. He never looked at her.
Moments later, the large area in front of the castle started to fill with people, both prisoners and townspeople. Bidkar was getting excited; Mari knew from the way her skin tingled. Rekema had the prisoners marched out in front of her. She walked Mari down the line, emphasizing the unnatural way that she moved with her legs snapping and torso rolling.
Out of the corner of her eye, Mari saw the female scholar, but for some reason, Rekema ignored her. Rekema had Mari lunge forward and grab a small man from the middle of the line. She dragged him forward by the manacles around his wrists.
“What’s this kingdom’s history in regards to magic?” Mari’s throat burned from growling out the words.
The man didn’t speak; he only stared at the ground. Mallory giggled somewhere behind her. Why did no one look up at her? She said, “Oh, I was hoping this would happen.”
Rekema said through Mari, “You won’t tell me?”
They turned toward the female scholar. “This is your doing, hm?”
“They won’t tell you anything! None of us will,” the woman spat at Mari’s feet.
“Well…” Rekema and Mari sighed, tilting her head. A second later, Mari’s leg snapped up and came down on the man’s head, shoving it into the ground. She glanced at the line of prisoners. “You would listen to her over your queen? Have you no loyalty?”
Her heel pushed down. A woman screamed. Rekema and Mari turned and saw a woman in a simple, dirty dress running forward. Mari fleetingly thought the woman resembled herself. Two small humans huddled together behind her. The woman had tears streaming down her face. “Stop! Please!”
The woman threw herself at Mari’s feet, grabbing at her ankles. She sobbed, and Mari couldn’t make out what she was saying, except for one word “mercy.” What was that? Without even blinking, Rekema forced her power into Mari and had her grab the woman and toss her back. Mari was not sure if it was possible for the woman to survive.
“By not answering my questions, you are committing treason against your queen. I can’t really threaten the lot of you with prison, you’re already there, and if I threaten your families with prison you’ll just be reunited with them, which isn’t really a punishment.” Rekema and Mari paced up and down the line. Mari saw Bidkar coming towards them. With a long, dramatic sigh, Rekema and Mari said, “It seems, the problem is, my loyal, loyal subjects, that you have forgotten what happens when you disobey me. Now, because I am generous, and kind I will overlook what has just happened, and only punish one of you, and the rest of you will remember your loyalty.”
“We do remember our loyalty,” the female scholar said. She staggered to her feet. She raised her head high. “Our loyalty to our king, King Dainan!”
“That’s not what I want to hear,” Rekema and Mari said. Loyal to Dainan? How? Why? What could these people gain? Dainan was just a man in a cell? He couldn’t help for them.
Rekema shook her head and let go of Mari. Mari tumbled to the ground; her head spun, and her whole body throbbed. She curled in on herself, blocking out the whispers and gasps of the people around her. Everything hurt. She just wanted to sleep.
Her mind fogged, and her head was jerked up, causing several people to cry out and back away. Bidkar had taken control.
Mari was slowly forced back to her feet in a painful and awkward way. People shuffled away from her as she huffed, and her head whipped around. Bidkar grinned, and Mari’s stomach turned. Bidkar had her rush towards the female scholar and grab her by the neck. Mari’s fingers tightened according to Bidkar’s hand movements.
The scholar coughed, but did not reach for Mari’s hands. Bidkar growled, and Mari watched the scholar hit the ground. She hovered over her a moment later and grabbed the woman’s leg. A pause, and then Bidkar thrust her hand up, clenching her fist. A second later, a crack and a scream filled the air.
Bidkar tossed her head back and laughed. Mari didn’t know how to describe herself. She was blank. Bidkar’s excitement and pleasure thrummed through her, but it wasn’t her own. It was just there, and she herself didn’t know what she thought or felt. What did this scholar’s pain mean to her? She slowly realized it had always been like this when the Seven had taken control. What they felt, she felt, but it wasn’t hers. She said things, but they weren’t her words. She did things, but they weren’t her actions. So what did that make her? Who did it make her? If she was separate from the Seven, like the time with Dainan, who was she?
“Does anyone else want to test me?” Bidkar said through Mari’s cold voice. No one rose to her challenge. Mari staggered to her feet; her arms hung at her sides. Bidkar raised her voice, and Mari’s own matched. “Now, who’s going to tell me what I want to know?”
A moment of silence. The prisoners looked at each other. Mari caught one of them looking between the woman who had been thrown aside, the man who had been pushed into the ground, and the small humans that had been with the woman. He shut his eyes for a moment, but his lips moved. His head turned slightly upward, and no sound came from him. Whatever he said to the sky caused him to open his eyes with his face hardened. The prisoner shakily stood up. “I will.”
Mari did not understand what he could have possibly said that would give the strength to stand up when no one else would. The Seven turned to face her. Bidkar moved her fingers, and Mari walked towards the prisoner. The prisoner closed his eyes and took a breath. “Our kingdom has a few magic users, but they are few and far between, and not at all strong. They are reclusive, preferring to live on the borders. The previous king’s grandfather was the last king to call on one.”
Rekema smiled and gave Bidkar a short nod. Bidkar’s fingers twitched, and Mari stepped away from the prisoner. Before Mari even realized it, she stood above the other prisoner who had refused to answer the Seven’s questions. Her foot connected with his stomach, and she hauled him up by his shirt. Bidkar’s searing power surged through her veins and then her hand came out the other side of his stomach.
Another surge of power. She threw him into one of the nearby buildings. He went through one of the walls, bringing it down. Balak laughed somewhere behind Mari. Bidkar let go, but before Mari’s legs could give out, Rekema had taken her again. With a voice so cold and unfeeling, Mari didn’t even know her voice could sound like that, she said, “Now I trust you all know where your loyalty lies, with me. I expect nothing less than your complete and utter cooperation from now on, or I won’t be as generous and merciful as I have been today.”
So this was mercy? Somehow, it didn’t quite seem right.
* * *
“Hey, don’t go passing out on me. I am not dragging you back to that room. Either stay conscious and put a little effort into walking, or I’ll leave you to lie on these stairs.”
Muraad. Mari couldn’t remember what was happening. The others had gone, and Mari could barely stand. Bidkar’s inhuman power had left her barely able to open her eyes much less walk or think.
Muraad’s grip slipped, and Mari fell to her knees, starting to wretch up what was in her stomach. Even after her stomach was empty, she continued to spit up, trying to rid her mouth of the burning.
Muraad forced her to her feet; strangled breaths barely escaped her. She staggered up the steps again, bumping into the walls. Her vision blurred. She felt disgusting. What happened? Her memories were jagged and painful to touch. She tried anyway. A man lying in the dirt. Mercy. A crack. Mercy.
Tears leaked from her eyes as she fell into her room. Muraad let her collapse on her bed. She fisted her hand into the covers, curling herself around it. Sharp pangs coursed through her stomach and chest.
“Bidkar shouldn’t have—It was too much, ugh, look, pet, you’ll be fine tomorrow. You just have to wait it out,” Muraad said. Mari groaned burrowing her head deeper into the bed. “I know, pet, the next few hours are not going to be pretty for you.”
Another groan. Mari squeezed her eyes shut.
“I have to go. Just stay here and wait it out. I don’t know when I’ll be back.”
“No…” Mari tried to sit up. She forced her arm out from under her, reaching for him, but he had gone. She set her head down and for the next hour faded in and out of consciousness. The nightmare flashed in and out of focus. Her own voice taunted her. His frozen, horrifying eyes. She was so cold. It was so heavy. This crushing weight on her heart. The sun had begun to set when Mari found the strength to pull herself out of bed. “Muraad?”
“Anyone?” Gritting her teeth, Mari forced herself upright. Mari forced herself to the door. She had to lean against the wall as she climbed down the stairs. It was nearly impossible, but she had to keep going. She couldn’t stay in the room. She was certain the silence would suffocate her before her strength left her completely.
As her fingers scraped against the rough wall, Mari’s head bobbed up and down, not paying attention to her steps. A moment later, her legs tangled underneath her, and she tumbled down the stairs. Once she finally came to a stop at the bottom of the staircase, her head throbbed. She coughed and laid there for a moment, hoping the pain might fade. Mari groaned and forced herself to her feet. The world spun around her. Mari couldn’t put her thoughts together; however, she knew where she was going. That one thing was clear to her. She remembered the way. She had to stop several times to catch her breath, but eventually she made it. The guard outside the room stepped aside as she approached. She fumbled with the handle as she pulled it shut behind her. Her legs shook, and she swayed.
“Dainan,” Mari muttered. She dropped to her knees, clutching her stomach and head.
“What are you doing?” Dainan hurried toward her.
“I couldn’t stand it.” Mari doubled over. “I needed someone, anyone. Alone, in pain, all of their feelings. I couldn’t bear it alone.”
She reached out a hand to steady herself, and Dainan caught her. “You mean the Seven? They left you again?”
“You… believe?” Mari looked up at him through her tangled hair.
“Yes.” Dainan helped her lay down. He set her head on his lap. “I saw what happened through the window. You couldn’t, wouldn’t do that, not on your own.”
“You saw?” Mari stared at him, not even bothering to mask whatever strange emotion coursed through her. How did he know she wouldn’t do that on her own? How did she know she wouldn’t do that on her own?
Dainan pulled a thin blanket over her. “Yes, I did. All that pain, there was a moment, you fell, and I saw, for just a moment, your pain. It was… before then, you acted nothing like you, and then there was that moment. I could see you, the you that came to me, the you that told me all you desire is not to be alone. I may not understand fully, but I know what I saw, and the things that happened, they weren’t you.”
Mari took quick, shallow breaths, staring up at him. Now, for a moment, she was the one who didn’t believe. He pulled her hair out of her face and adjusted the blanket on her. “The Seven may have left, but I’m here. We barely know each other, but we’re alike. You don’t have to bear this pain alone. You don’t have to bear anything alone anymore. Not now, because for what it’s worth, from a man stuck in a cell, you’ve got me.”
“I—” Mari took a sharp breath. Her eyes fluttered shut. “I’m not alone because of you. I cannot express the relief that gives me from this burden.”
She wanted to say more. But where were the words? She tried.
“Shh… you need rest. Don’t worry, you’re safe.”
Safe? Was that like being not alone? She hated being alone. She would take any company, any measure of comfort, anything offered that would ease the pain on her heart no matter how small. Dainan, locked away in his cell, stripped of his crown, was there. He was the only one offering her anything, and he didn’t even know her. He made her feel less alone. Truly, she had no words to express what that meant to her. Was there even a word for such a feeling?
Mari fell into unconsciousness again. She did not dream; she had no nightmares. Not that night.