Mari stared up at the ceiling. She had nothing to do except lie on her bed, awake. She already explored every inch of the room, twice. There was nothing left to do. She didn’t want to fall asleep. The nightmare kept coming back. If there was anything she could do to avoid it, she would.
Before, Mari would have gone to Dainan to stay occupied, but ever since she met Regan and arranged for her and her child to be moved into Dainan’s cell, she hadn’t seen him. She recalled the guard outside the cell looked at her strangely, but did what she said. Mari supposed what mattered was Dainan had his family with him. The thought reminded her of why she had stayed away. There was heavy pang in her chest; that was the reason why. She didn’t want to be the outsider. They were family, and she was just… well, she wasn’t sure. It was so much easier for her to know who she was not than who she was. Mari knew she was not family.
It was true that Mari had received a ‘sorry’ from Regan, but Mari did not believe Regan liked her. If Dainan’s family did not like her, Mari couldn’t help but wonder if that meant he did not like her. Had he ever liked her in the first place? Was she just someone he put up with because he had no choice? Now that he had Regan, would he even want to see her again? As much as she wanted to see him, she didn’t want to be where she wasn’t wanted. The last thing she wanted was to have these thoughts confirmed by Dainan.
Mari didn’t know what to do, and while it wasn’t a new state of mind for her, she wished she could stop experiencing the uncertainty. She thought over everything again and again especially the concept of family and the possibility of her having one. Mari had no idea how to imagine who would have been her parents, but she imagined a sibling. She imagined a boy. Probably older than her and taller. Mari gave him dark, thick hair, but much shorter than hers. Maybe even a girl, younger than her. If they really existed, Mari wondered whether or not he would like her, but Mari liked the idea that they would. If she was being honest, she imagined the boy to be a lot like Muraad.
As she tried to paint a clearer picture of the girl, the pulling on her insides returned. Some of the Seven were coming.
She sat up, and her heart sank when Balak and the twins arrived. No Muraad. What were they here for? Why wasn’t Muraad with them? Her face twisted, trying to contain her questions.
Balak frowned at her. “It’s just us, Rekema and Muraad are busy.”
“Oh.” Mari bowed her head. She couldn’t hide her thoughts all that well. Would they be able to tell she had been leaving the room and seeing Dainan?
Mari jolted forward. Balak’s dark, boiling emotions flooded her. How did she not notice it before? She choked on the thick, sickening feeling rushing through her. He twisted his hands and his tattoos slithered across them. Mari stumbled off the bed. His voice tore at her ears. “We’ve been in dull meeting after dull meeting, wasting our time. I’m tired of being bored. So, we’re going to have fun.”
The twins shrieked. It was that word again, ‘fun.’ Meeko grinned from ear to ear; his tail twisted about on the floor. He had too much emotion to keep it still. Mallory rocked back and forth on her feet, tail curled up so tightly she seemed about to burst. Fun, Mari wanted to grab her stomach. She thought she might hurl again. Her head spun as Balak forced her down the stairs. As her feet tangled beneath her, she bumped into the walls. The twins continued to laugh.
Mari knew what was about to happen. She didn’t want to though, but she didn’t have a choice. Memories flew in and out of her head. It hurt.
Balak slammed Mari through a set of doors, having her stagger outside. Mari blinked. Buildings filled her vision; people milled about the streets. These people… Images, memories of people screaming and running flooded her mind. It was when she broke the wall. She didn’t want that, not again. Something twisted in Mari’s chest and clicked in her head. The people ran. Regan’s husband… his heart… Awful. The memories, the experience when she was under the Seven’s control. Her memories always fragmented after the event. Always after the Seven were done with her. What if…?
Mari tried to cry out, but her voice was not her own. Disgusting power surged in her veins. Balak lifted his hand and slammed her into a stone building. It cracked; someone started screaming. Balak was laughing. Mari would have given up her ability to hear anything ever again if it meant she would stop hearing his voice right then.
She caught hold of her thought. What if she could fragment her mind now? What if she shut her mind down? She didn’t have control over anything except for her eyes, nose, mouth, and some of her mind. Maybe…
Mari held her breath, hoping Balak wouldn’t force her to speak or tighten his grip on her further. That was the only thing that could stop her. Her head continued to spin. Her chest burned. She refused to give in. She would not breathe. Her head was light. Her vision blurred, and everything in her screamed at her to breathe. She would not. Mari felt hot. She would not be part of this. The Seven could destroy and hurt; they could use her body. Mari had no choice in that, but she would not be part of it anymore. She didn’t want to be part of anything that resembled what she did to Regan’s husband. Not again. She would not be part of it again.
Balak continued laughing. The twins were cheering. Everything faded away to Mari.
* * *
“—all the stupid, reckless, completely—”
“We get it! You’re not happy.”
“Of course not! Look at what you did!”
Mari blinked her eyes open. She was back in the bedroom. Her fingers twitched. She was lying on the bed; her head throbbed. Everything hurt.
“As much as I love watching this, she’s awake,” Apep said. There was a flurry of movement. Rekema’s face appeared in her sight. Rekema pulled her up into a sitting position.
“Is she alright? Harmed?” Muraad asked. He hovered at the foot of the bed, partially blocking Balak from her view. The glint of his scales caused Mari to flinch.
“Like I said earlier, her injuries are minor.” Bidkar sat on the dresser, resting her chin on her hand. “Her mind on the other hand… I can’t quite tell how much damage there is, or if there even is any more damage than usual for her.”
As she reached up to rub her temples, Mari noticed her hands shaking. She groaned, trying to push the thick, confusing thrum out of her mind. Peering around her hands, she blinked. “Muraad?”
“What is it?” He knelt by the bed. “Do you remember anything?”
For once, she did. Not all of it, but she remembered enough that it made sense. Everything seemed to freeze at that realization. Mari remembered enough that it made sense to her. It made sense to her. She couldn’t tell him. How new. Mari had never done that before, shutting them out, taking any kind of control back from them. She mumbled, “No. It’s all a blur. It hurts.”
“See?” Muraad shot to his feet, raising her voice. “What if you had done irreversible damage? What would we do then, huh?”
“Muraad!” Rekema barked. She grabbed his arm and pushed him away from Balak. “I’m not thrilled about it either, but at least there was no irreversible damage. We just need to be more careful, especially now. It wouldn’t do if we had to start over.”
“Start over?” Mari sat up straighter, trying to keep the pounding from drowning out Rekema.
Bidkar shushed her; Mari shrunk back into the bed. She could barely hear. Balak raised his hands. “Look, I didn’t know. It won’t happen again.”
“It better not.” Muraad crossed his arms. The twins snickered from their place on the floor, earning them a glare from Muraad that told them he hadn’t forgotten about their participation.
Rekema tossed her hair. “Good. I won’t tolerate anymore foolishness. Bidkar pulled me out a very crucial meeting for this, and now I have to explain to our higher-ups what the emergency was. Letting off some steam was fine before, but we can’t afford that anymore. We need her in her best condition for the next phase.”
“What?” Mari shook her head. Had Rekema said something about a ‘phase?’ What was happening? She crawled closer; the blankets tangled around her, and no one paid attention to her.
“Her mind is fragile enough as is, so from now on we have to be careful. We can’t risk anymore damage to it.” Rekema glanced over the rest of the Seven, looking each of them in the eyes. Everyone gave her a solemn nod.
Mari reached out to Muraad, but Rekema swatted her hand away. Rekema gave her a withering glare that sent her scrambling away. Smirking, Rekema turned to Bidkar and said, “Now that that’s settled, Bidkar, you and the twins need to do some research. Balak, Apep has a few tricks to help you increase your power and control. We’re going to need it. Muraad and I will return to our meetings and finish the plans.”
“Understood,” they chorused. As they left one by one, Mari scrambled out of the bed.
She grabbed hold of Muraad. He turned slightly, blinking at her. “You’re staying here, pet. We’ll be back in a day or two. For now, you just recover. We’ll have lots to do soon.”
He was gone. That wasn’t what Mari was going to ask about! She wanted to scream she didn’t want this anymore. Her fingers only caught air. She was… Mari dropped onto the bed, holding her head in her hands. She was alone. The room darkened and started to spin. She held onto her stomach; it turned and jumped. It was revolting. The Seven were… Had they ever been what she thought they were? Were they always like this? Mari briefly entertained the idea of going to Dainan, but knew she wouldn’t make it. Curling into the covers, she hoped more sleep would make it pass, the sickness, the pain, and the loneliness.
* * *
Mari woke up as the sun filtered through the window. She forced herself to get out of the bed and to eat breakfast. It took a few minutes, but she began to feel somewhat better after eating. Her head still hurt, but she was able to comfortably walk about the room. That was good. She couldn’t waste her day trying to recover. There was too much in her head for her to stay still.
She ignored the red stains on her dress and on her that had not been there earlier. Thinking about it would only make her feel worse. Sliding the crown onto her head, Mari decided she needed to see Dainan despite her hesitations. She determined the only way to sort through her conflicting thoughts was to go to him. She had much on her mind, but more than that, she found she missed him. It was strange. Mari thought more, realizing she missed him even more than she missed Muraad and the rest of the Seven when they had left her on that day in the cottage. That day felt like years ago to her, but Mari knew it had not been that long. Did she miss the Seven as much as she used to? No, Mari couldn’t enjoy their presence like she used to, not when they made her feel so… so…
She stopped in the middle of a hallway; her stomach churned. That feeling returned. The one from the day she first met Dainan, like being torn in half. She increased her pace; her mind reeled from the thoughts in it.
She sprinted the rest of the way. Her feet burned, and her footsteps echoed around her. The guard in front of it hurried out of her way. He glanced over his shoulder at her, and Mari realized she must look frightful. She didn’t care; there were far more important thing at hand than what that guard thought. Mari burst into the cell, slamming the door behind her. Coughing, she bent over to catch her breath. Her sides burned; she tried to speak, but nothing came out.
“Mari! What’s wrong? Are you alright? Are you hurt?” Dainan took her by the arm and helped her sit down.
“Give her a moment to catch her breath,” Regan said. She bounced her baby, coming a few steps closer, but maintained a safe distance.
“Sorry.” Dainan winced as Mari’s breathing slowed.
She kept her head down; her eyes watered, and her throat constricted. Her voice came out broken, like she had swallowed shards of glass. She said, “I’m not alright.”
Something flickered in her sight. She glanced up to see Dainan kneeling in front of her. Regan had stepped forward, forgetting about distance. Her face… She placed a hand on Mari’s shoulder and held her baby with the other. Dainan took a deep breath. His face was warm, concerned. It was so different from the way the Seven looked at her. Better different, even better than how Muraad looked at her. “Tell me, what’s wrong?”
Mari took a shuddering breath, coughing. She had to tell him; that’s why she was there, but a pang coursed through her heart. She had to do this, but her hands shook. If the Seven knew… Mari clenched her fists. She had to. She said, “I—The Seven. Balak. He, he was frustrated, upset – it was so hot, boiling, and – he and the twins, they – they wanted to destroy, and people got hurt. I–I couldn’t do it. I did something. I couldn’t watch it. It hurt too much.”
Tears leaked from her eyes, and her shoulders shook. “I don’t understand it. Dainan, I don’t want to do this anymore, but I don’t know what to do!”
Strangled noised came out of her throat. Tears rolled down her cheeks, etching their way into her skin. “The Seven… I want no part in it! They use me, and people get hurt, but what can I do? I just feel so… wrong. Confused? So… alone.”
Chains rattled softly. A pair of arms wrapped around her shoulders, pulling her into an embrace. As much of an embrace as someone who was restrained could manage. Mari wouldn’t have known the difference anyway. His voice steadied her racing heart. “That emotion, Mari, it’s called being lost. We’ve all been there.”
Mari clutched his shirt, struggling to breathe. It was like she had lost control of herself, but this time she had no idea who was pulling the strings. “How do I make it stop? What do I do? I feel like I’m being torn in half, and I can’t stop it. Please, help me.”
“Mari,” Dainan said. He pulled away slightly. “Look at me.”
She wiped at her eyes and looked up. He said, “I promise I’ll help you. We’ll figure this out, together. You’re not alone; you’ve got me. I’m with you every step of the way.”
A hand brushed her face. Another hand rubbed circles into her shoulder. Mari pushed her hair back and took a deep breath. “Promise? What does that mean? I don’t understand. How do I know you won’t leave me alone like the Seven did? You said you believe me. But, I want to, I truly do, but how do I believe you? I want your help, I do, but you’re just a man in cell.”
“That’s what a promise is for, Mari. A promise means, well, Mari, it means you can believe me. A promise means it doesn’t matter what’s in the way, what I have to do, I will follow through. It means you don’t have to worry.” Dainan said, taking her hand. Mari stared at their hands. Hers was so small compared to his. It was so bony and frail. How was it possible she hadn’t broken until now? Maybe… maybe it was because she had always been broken, damaged beyond repair. Was this what it was like to be healed?
Everything came rushing at her again. How could she possibly do this? Her hands shook. How could she make it through this in one piece? Dainan’s grip tightened. How different their hands were. Hers covered in grime, stained red. Mari did not believe it could ever come off compared to Dainan’s clean, normal hands.
He continued, “I may just be a man in a cell, but when I promise you I will help, you can believe me. I will help you through this. Mari, I’m not going to leave you. I know how you feel. I’ve been lost and alone. Facing the Seven, the day you first arrived, I had no idea what to do. Just like you do right now, but it’s going to be okay, for both of us. Do you remember what you said that day I told you I believed you? You said you weren’t alone. I’m never going to let you feel alone because I’ve been there, knowing that pain. I’m not going to stand by and watch.”
Mari stared at him, steadying her breath.
“I believe you.”
“Good.” Dainan smiled.
The baby made odd, gurgling noises. Mari peered through her hair. Regan wore an odd expression, but it was a king expression. Regan said, “We’ll both help you through this.”
“I—” Mari wiped at her eyes for a different reason than before. Her fears from before, about Regan and Dainan not wanting her around because she was an outsider, were gone. She had never been so glad to be so wrong about something. “I’m so glad, glad to have you, both of you. It means more than anything I could ever put into words. Thank you.”
“We’ll get through this,” Dainan said. “We’ll stop the Seven, I promise.”
Mari bowed her head. She believed him. She did, but she knew it wouldn’t be easy. It would be the hardest thing she ever did, she was certain. It would be even harder than the day she decided to seek out Dainan. Could she really do it? Go against the Seven? Go against everything, everyone she had known her entire life? Could she fight the creatures that defined her? Who would she be without them? Could she do this to Muraad? Could she last without them? Mari had a sinking feeling like it was going to kill her to go through with this.