The incident, as Mari referred to it in her mind, had brought her and Dainan closer. He believed her, and he had watched over her when she was completely vulnerable. Ever since then, Mari had continued to go back to his cell and see him every day. She quite enjoyed the visits; she learned so much. Things were slowly making more sense; she could give things their proper names again.
“So, you say I am a queen, and before you were a king, and the area a king or queen has control over is kingdom or queendom?” Mari tapped her fingers over the crown that sat in her lap.
Dainan smiled, but shook his head. Mari huffed; he tended to do that right before he told her she understood something wrong. He said, “It’s called a kingdom even if a queen is ruling over it.”
“Why?” Mari slumped forward. Why did she always make the wrong assumptions?
Dainan shrugged. “I don’t entirely know. I would guess that it has something to do with the fact most queens don’t rule alone. It’s rare for a queen not to have a king.”
Mari leaned onto her fist balancing it on her knee. “So, many kings and queens rule together. But, you didn’t, and I don’t, does it depend on the kingdom, like an aspect of it? For instance, large kingdoms require both, but small kingdoms do not?”
Dainan leaned on his hand, copying her posture. “No, kings and queens rule together because they’re married. Sometimes they marry to increase their kingdom’s power or to secure peace, but the inherent size or power of the kingdom has nothing to do with whether or not there’s a king and queen. In order to manage large kingdoms, kings and queens have lords under them who are responsible for certain areas of the kingdom.”
Mari groaned, burying her head further into her palm. “This is all far too complicated. So, why didn’t you have a queen? If, uh, marrying one would increase your kingdom’s power, why not?”
“Good question.” Dainan shifted his foot; the chains scraped against the ground. Mari no longer paid the noise any mind. “Truth is, we’re both very young to a ruler. I had only been king for a year before you arrived. My father, who had been king before me, passed away, and once I took over, it was chaotic. I didn’t really have time to consider it.”
“Father?” Mari frowned. Had she heard that word before? She didn’t think so. “What is that?”
Dainan sat up, causing Mari to sit up as well. He quickly wiped the surprised look off his face, but Mari saw it. Much to her surprise, she didn’t mind as much anymore. She could not blame him for being surprised at her lack of knowledge anymore than she could blame herself for not having the knowledge. He never made her feel lesser for not knowing, and that was enough.
His eyes glazed over for a moment; Mari wondered if that was how she looked when the Seven took over. He shook his head and gave her all his attention. He said, “A father is…well, everyone has a father and mother, they’re called parents. Parents are the ones who have children and raise them. Children then marry other people and have children of their own.”
“I do not have these parents,” Mari said, testing the word out with her own voice. It sounded awkward when she said it as opposed to Dainan’s eloquence. Parents… She struggled to wrap her mind around the idea.
“Some people lose their parents when they’re young, so they don’t remember them, but someone had to give birth to you. You wouldn’t be here otherwise.” Dainan screwed his face up, and Mari could tell he was thinking. Mari was almost certain her face was the same; she was struggling with her thoughts and words as well. As much as she was struggling to understand, something about this idea of parents appealed to her.
“You say I had them once, but lost them. Where did they go? What happened?” Mari leaned forward. Something in her burned. She needed to know.
Dainan held his hands out towards her, palms up. “I don’t know. It’s possible they died, like mine. Or they could be out there somewhere, and you were somehow separated from them. Are you sure you don’t have any memory of them whatsoever?”
Mari slumped forward again. Her hand tangled in her long hair, pulling it out of her eyes. “I don’t. My whole life, the only ones I remember are the Seven. And even any recollection of these parents were somewhere in me, I could not dig deep enough to find it. My memories…they are…scattered, chaotic, confusing.”
Dainan stared at her, and her heart dropped. He said, “If you don’t remember, then the only people who could tell you about your parents would be the Seven. I’m sorry.”
Mari put on a tight smile. She did not know what ‘sorry’ was, but she did not want to change the subject just to find out. Deciding to ask later because she had more important questions, she said, “Just, tell me about your parents, so I might know more about the concept. What do they do? How does one ‘raise’ a child?”
“Well,” Dainan said, taking a deep breath. He took a moment, and Mari patiently waited, watching him. He glanced back at her and said, “My parents were busy people. We didn’t see them much when we were young, but they tried to make time for us. My mother would sing to us in the evenings, and my father, when he could, would tutor me. He taught us how to fight, and specifically he taught me what I needed to know to eventually become king after him.”
He paused. His mind seemed to be elsewhere as if in a memory. Mari waited. He smiled at her, but something didn’t quite seem right to Mari about it. He continued saying, “Parents are supposed to love their children, teach them right from wrong, teach them what they need to know to be independent, so they can take care of themselves when the parents aren’t around, so that their children may one day be able to do the same for their own children. My parents, they did their best.”
With a long sigh, Dainan stared at his wrists. A storm gathered on his face, pooling in his eyes. He folded in on himself, retreating to his mind. There was no way Mari could know what was occupying his thoughts, what he was remembering. Her heart shuddered; it reminded her of looking into the glass that showed her an image of herself. His voice wavered, beginning to fade. “They did their best, but sometimes, I feel like I’m the one who is failing them.”
Mari bowed her head and closed her eyes; she did not want to see his pained expression. She had no desire to watch his shoulders shake. She pretended she did not hear him cover his mouth in an attempt to muffle his sharp breaths. There was a long pause before there was no more, and Mari sat up, asking, “You, uh, you mentioned ‘we.’ Who else were you referring to?”
“Did I not tell you before?” Dainan looked up, rubbing at his eyes. “I have a sister, Regan.”
“A sister?” Mari watched him steady his breathing. He kept his gazed lowered as if he could not bear to look at her, or to let her see his struggle. Mari did not know which, but her heart continued to throb.
He nodded. “Yes, Regan is my sister, and she’s the other child my parents had. When parents have several children, they’re called siblings, and to each other brothers and sisters. As a whole, they’re called a family.”
“Is she also,” She paused. Mari had the idea she should not ask for fear she would cause more pain, but she needed to know. She continued, “uh, lost to you?”
“No.” Dainan shook his head. “Not at all. She was in the castle when you came and was placed in the dungeon with my old advisers. I haven’t seen her, but I believe she is still alive.”
Was she not with the other prisoners when the Seven had them all brought out? Mari wondered. How odd. She needed answers, and for once, Dainan couldn’t give them to her.
Mari picked up the crown. She turned it over a few times before standing up. “I should be going.”
“Right,” Dainan said. He stood up, brushing dust and dirt off his clothes, but it was pointless. His clothes would never be clean again. “Will you come back tomorrow?”
“Yes,” Mari said. She bowed her head, placing the crown back on it. “Provided the Seven do not return, I will be here tomorrow.”
Dainan smiled. Her lips twitched, unsure of herself. She turned and left the cell. She carefully shut the door behind her, catching a glimpse of Dainan staring at her as she went. The door shut with a click, and she locked it. Dainan had explained the concept to her. She did not quite like the idea of locking him into the cell, but she reasoned it didn’t matter as his chains did not even reach the door.
As she walked away, she had much to think about, and while she wasn’t good at it, for a lack of practice, Mari found it preferable to waiting.
* * *
The next day, Mari wandered the halls. She took her time, still convincing herself her plan would work. How hard could it be? She could do it. She was completely capable. Mari just wished she believed it.
This time, she decided not to ask one of the guards for assistance. She could have asked the guard at Dainan’s cell, but the look he gave her every time she went unsettled her. Normally, it wouldn’t be a problem, but before she went to see Dainan, there was something else she needed to do first. She was certain of that. She felt she needed to do it on her own.
As she made her way down a flight of stairs, she found a pair of guards stationed outside a door. When they noticed her, they whispered to each other. Mari straightened her posture and focused on twisting her face to match Rekema’s. The crown weighed on her head. The guards bowed their heads, and one of them opened the door for her.
“Your highness,” one of them said.
Mari held her head high. She stuck out her hand. “Give me the keys.”
He did so without hesitation. Mari gripped them so tightly she thought their pattern would remain indented on her skin for the rest of her days. She strode through the doorway, and she didn’t express any surprise at the sight before her. The dungeon seemed to just be a hall made of cells that had metal bars separating prisoners. She fought to keep from shivering as the cold seeped through her feet and into her core. Her eyes strained to make out the shapes in the darkness. There were a few torches scattered every so often on the walls that lit the hall in a dim, sickly yellow light.
She took a deep breath and headed down the hall. Her footsteps echoed around her, and the sound of chains skittering across stone hit her ears. It was a bit like the twins’ tails snaking across the ground; she held her arms, tightening her grip to keep from shaking. She glanced around, catching sight of a few people in the cells. They all moved away the moment her eyes focused in their direction.
Mari supposed they remembered the last time they had seen her. She wished she did; her memories of that day were blurred and broken.
It wasn’t long until Mari caught sight of a vaguely familiar face. He was the first person not to hurry away at her gaze: the scholar. The man she originally had wanted to see. What a strange thing. A simple misunderstanding was all it took. Her bad memory and poor way with words. Strange, the idea that if things had gone the way she meant for them to, she would have been brought here. What would have happened if she had been brought to him and not Dainan?
“Get away, you monster! You’re not getting anything from me, not after what you did! Did you really think you would gain anyone’s loyalty? Demon!”
Mari grunted when something hit her face. It stung, and something dripped down her cheek. She ignored it and continued walking. She had her answer.
Continuing down the hall, she glanced over the cells for a woman. She saw the female scholar, curled up on the ground, but that wasn’t who she wanted. Dripping could be heard. It wasn’t water that left a trail behind her and stained her feet. Only when she reached the last few cells, did Mari see her.
“Regan?” Mari walked up to the door, testing out the name.
The woman sat up, keeping something held close to her chest. She was not lost, good. She glanced up at Mari, and the moment she saw Mari, or rather the crown, her gaze hardened. Her grip tightened on what she was holding. “What?”
Mari took the keys and unlocked the door. Pulling it open, she puffed and tried to hide how much effort it took her to move the heavy door. Mari turned to the woman who still sat on the ground, turned away from her. Mari took a deep breath. “Come with me.”
Regan stood up, and Mari saw what she held. She frowned. It was a strangely shaped object. Mari had never seen one before, but it seemed harmless enough. At the very least, it didn’t seem like Regan would part with it easily, so Mari ignored it.
“Why? What do you want with me?” Regan shifted the object in her arms. Pained noises filtered through the air. Someone nearby seemed to be wailing.
“I don’t,” Mari said, “but someone else does. Now, come with me.”
“And if I don’t?” Regan pulled the object even closer and stepped away from Mari. Mari scowled. How did she explain this? The whole matter hardly made any sense to her, not to mention there would be so much to explain if Mari wanted to do it properly.
“Come. It is important to someone who is…he is…” Mari glanced down and saw the small puddle forming at her feet. Drip, drip. She did not want to say his name outright where anyone might overhear. Her hands shook; she fisted them into her skirt. She was afraid that if somehow the Seven found out about her visits to Dainan, and she was absolutely terrified what they would do once they did. She did not want to take any risks especially with Dainan. Mari lowered her voice, saying, “He needs to see you, to know you are not lost to him.”
“What?” Regan stepped closer.
Mari rubbed her temple. She had never been more painfully aware of how bad she was at explaining things. She grabbed Regan by the sleeve and pulled her along. Regan stumbled at first before falling in rhythm with Mari. Whispers hounded their steps. Chains rattled. Someone started yelling. Several small objects hit her arms and legs. Her skin stung, and in some places, Mari felt blood well up. Her only indication of what they did was to straighten her posture and let them watch the blood roll off her skin. Mari dropped Regan’s sleeve as they left the dungeon.
She ignored the looks the guards gave her on the way out. Once out of sight of anyone except Regan, Mari still resisted the urge to look at or touch her small wounds. Her blood pounded in her veins. Was she doing the right thing? Once Dainan had Regan, would he still have time for her? Should that even matter? Mari paid no attention to anything around her. She was too focused on her path despite the fact she knew the way by heart.
Behind her, Regan was muttering to the thing in her arms the entire time. Mari found it to be an odd thing, to be the one that someone followed. Mari had not decided whether or not that was a good odd or bad odd. Did she want to follow or be followed? Did it have to be one or the other? Regan finally fell silent when they reached Dainan’s door. The guard saw Mari coming and went in the other direction, but he always stayed nearby. He gave her an amount of privacy; although, she suspected he did so for his own sake than for hers. Mari imagined he did not want to know what she did in there. She did not blame him; he had no reason to think she treated Dainan any differently than how the Seven treated other prisoners. As much as it made her stomach turn that he thought of her like that, she was relying on it. She needed his fear to keep him silent. As of the moment, she had no other way to keep him quiet. He was a risk; the next time the Seven came, it was possible he might mention something. Mari knew she would have to take care of him sooner rather than later. She could not live with herself if the Seven found out about Dainan and intervened.
She lifted her head and wiped the blood off her cheek, knowing it would still be stained red like the back of her left hand. Her arms and legs still bled as well. She had no idea what had been thrown at her; rocks or shards of something seemed likely. She was sore; her limbs stung and burned. Red stained her skin. What did it matter that this one time it was her own? Her hair fell in front of her face, hiding the cut from view. Dainan wouldn’t be able to see any of the wounds, but Mari would know it was there. Was she ready? Mari didn’t have the answer, but she knew why she was doing this in the first place. No matter what happened afterward, Mari had to believe it was worth it, or else she would never be able to open the door. She took one last look at the red stain on her hand. Why she did this… It was enough. Mari pulled out her key and unlocked the door.