With the heavy, red-brown book in her hands, Mari made her way to Dainan’s cell. Her legs and arms still ached, and she struggled to keep her eyes open, but she needed to see him. She shifted the book every so often, trying to help keep it in her arms by bracing it against her hip.
She puffed her cheeks as she turned down the hall that led to Dainan’s cell. Mari sighed when she noticed the guard was nowhere in sight. Mari was certain the man was suspicious; all these visits to Dainan, moving Regan to his cell and leaving her unrestrained. It wasn’t what the Seven would have done. Mari knew he must be thinking something, but she had no idea what. He was a risk, but he wasn’t her biggest priority.
Her biggest priority was the book. She had absolutely no doubt Dainan would want the book and able to understand it. Mari wasn’t deluding herself; she knew Dainan couldn’t possibly know everything, but she believed in him. The book was in his library after all; he must be able to understand the markings that filled the pages. He was her best chance.
Mari bounced the book up on her hip as she fumbled with her key. Her hand shook as she tried to turn the key.
It took her a minute, but she finally pushed the door open.
“Mari,” Dainan said, standing up at her entrance. Mari shut the door behind her, still balancing the book on her hip. His eyes flickered to the book before returning to her face. “You’re back, did you find something?”
“Yes, uh… I am not exactly sure, but I believe you will be able to figure it out.” Mari said, stepping forward. She lifted the book higher, turning the gold markings towards them. Regan’s brow furrowed, and she set her sleeping child on the makeshift bed before joining Mari and Dainan.
Dainan walked up to her, and Mari passed the book to him, sighing once the weight was lifted from her hands. Dainan sat down, and Regan kneeled beside him. Mari watched his face as his eyes traced the markings.
Dainan’s eyes flickered back up to her. As she sat down in front of him, she said, “Yesterday, Rekema and Muraad appeared, and they were looking for something. They brought me to a place called a library. It was filled with things like that, books, they said.”
Mari glanced between the two siblings focusing on their expressions. Regan was looking at the book while Dainan continued to look at her. She took a shaky breath, catching Regan’s attention. Mari stuttered, “We, uh, they, uh… they had me pick up a lot of books and turn pages for them because they cannot touch them. I do not know what they were looking for. The books were filled with strange markings that meant something to them, but nothing to me.”
Mari reached forward and tapped the book with her fingers. “When they looked at this book, they found what they were looking for. I do not remember where, but I thought you might know more. It is a start, at least, to finding out what they are after.”
Dainan turned the book over in his hands before giving Mari a brilliant smile that sent her stomach churning, but not like the times the Seven had done the same. He said, “Thank you, you’re wonderful!”
Mari blinked. She didn’t quite know the meaning of the word, but it meant something good. It seemed like she would never stop experiencing new things. No one had ever told her she was wonderful. Never before had she felt so warm inside after someone told her she had done something good or right. Her face heated up. “Why? All I did was bring you something that I don’t understand.”
Dainan shook his head. “This is the first step in stopping the Seven, finding out what they’re after.”
“Mari,” Regan said, looking up from the book, “did they say anything to you that could help us narrow down what they were looking for in this book?”
Dainan kept his gaze on Mari. Mari frowned, shutting her eyes. She folded her hands into her lap. Could she remember? There must be something she remembered that would be useful. There was something, she was sure of it. Mari said, “I remember something about plans, strategies, and having patience. There was also something about the others and what is happening Underneath.”
“Underneath?” Dainan set the book down.
Mari nodded. Did they not know about Underneath? Mari didn’t know much herself, but Dainan and Regan seemed to know so much more than she did. Mari just assumed they had. “When the Seven aren’t with me, they’re in a place they call Underneath. They’ve never explained it to me, but there are more of their kind in the Underneath.”
Regan turned to her brother. He handed her the book and moved closer to Mari. The chains made a soft scraping noise as always. “Mari, that information is priceless. With that, and with what we’ll find in this book, I’m more certain than ever that we’ll come up with a plan. Trust me.”
Mari smiled. “I do.”
Dainan smiled in return. “Good, now let’s get started.”
Dainan took the book back from Regan. Mari stared at the markings once more. “So, you know what these markings mean?”
Regan stood up and went to check on her child as he had begun to wave his arms around and make small noises. Dainan shifted so that he was side by side with Mari, leaning against the wall. He placed the book between them so she could see. He opened the book up and pointed to the markings on the top of the page. “These markings are a way to represent language. Each word we speak has a certain mark or several different marks put together to represent that word. It’s called writing and being able to understand what the marks mean is called reading.”
“How do you know which markings mean which words?” Mari let her finger trace over the markings. She couldn’t quite believe the markings were really words. Could words really be something seen and not heard?
“Learning, practice,” Dainan said. He shifted the book closer. “Many people don’t know how to read. It’s simply not a tool they need, but nobles, kings, queens, scholars, they normally learn to read from a young age.”
“So…” Mari paused. Her hand froze as well. The question was on the tip of her tongue but she couldn’t say it.
She didn’t have to. Dainan turned to her. His warm smile caught her attention. He said, “Here, I’ll read to you.”
Mari bowed her head. Her throat closed up, and her eyes watered. She couldn’t say anything. She did not have the right words. She never seemed to have the right words especially around Dainan. He always seemed to find a way to render her speechless.
Fortunately, he did not need her to speak. He turned a few pages, saying, “The book is about our kingdom’s history, starting from the beginning and going up to a few decades ago. My father may have commissioned it, or his father.”
He landed on a page, lifting the book slightly. Mari moved closer to see, even though the marks didn’t mean anything to her. Dainan started to read, and Mari found herself lost in the story. Dainan’s voice put together an image in her mind.
She could see a young man, looking somewhat like Dainan, barely escaping with his life. His older brother, who took a similar appearance to Balak, ordered anyone who found the man to kill him. He ran from town to town, driven out by his own people because they feared his brother’s wrath. Weeks of running, hiding, starving. He had no more food or water, no way to survive, and no reason to survive. He stumbled across the border into another kingdom and was found by a young woman. Now, he didn’t know it at the time, Dainan said, but that woman was the daughter of the nobleman in charge of the land, one of the small kingdoms between Dainan’s and the east. She helped him to a small cottage in the forest where her friend lived; however, her friend was away in the east. Every day the woman came back and helped nurse him back to health.
“Why?” Mari asked when Dainan paused to take a breath. It just didn’t make sense to her. Dainan turned his head, and Mari blinked up at him. “Why would she help him? She did not know he was a prince so what could she stand to gain from helping him?”
Dainan leaned his head against the wall and gazed down at her a faint smile on his face. “Sometimes, just sometimes, not as often as we should, but we do things for people not because we expect to gain anything tangible from helping, but because of the satisfaction of helping them. We do things like that because what we really want is for the other person to be safe, healthy, and happy. You’ve never done something for someone else simply because it was for their good and not your own?”
Mari paused, catching a glimpse of something in Dainan’s eyes. It unnerved her. Was she supposed to know the answer? She stared at her lap, studying the lines in her fingers. Her hair spilled over her shoulder, hiding her. Had she ever done something for someone even though she would gain nothing? Even if it might hurt her in the end?
A wail sounded from across the room. Mari peered through the strands of her hair as Regan rocked her baby back and forth. That was it; Mari remembered. She had done something for someone even though she ran the risk of getting hurt. She had nothing to gain other than seeing Dainan happy.
She pushed her hair back and turned back to him, smiling slightly. “I think I have done that. Is there a word for it?”
Dainan’s face lit up as he chuckled. “Well, there are several things people can call it. I think the one you’re looking for is what describes the action. It’s called selflessness.”
“Selflessness,” Mari tested the word out. She pursed her lips and tried again. “Selflessness. That is the word because the action is not about one’s self, but it is about another.”
“That’s exactly right,” Dainan said, turning a page. He gave Mari a look she didn’t quite understand. She had never seen an expression quite like it. She had no idea what it meant. “You’re a lot smarter than you give yourself credit for.”
Heat filled her face, and she let her hair cover her face again. She reached over and tapped the book again. “What happened after that?”
Dainan adjusted his position, and his arm bumped into her. He lifted the book again and continued to read.
Mari started to put her mental image back together. Once the prince was well enough to be moved, the young woman’s friend came back and helped her move the prince to her father’s home. Her family provided him shelter, but the prince kept his identity secret.
Mari closed her eyes, smiling as Dainan continued reading to her. He did not seem to notice as he kept telling the story of his long gone family. As Mari began to give into sleep, the thought occurred to her how different she was from Dainan. He knew who he was, where he came from. People even recorded his family history so it would always be remembered. He would never have the questions she did about herself. Did that matter?
Maybe… maybe it didn’t. He was still there regardless. She could figure this out. She could figure out who she was. Who she was without the Seven. She had him. He wasn’t perfect, but he was there to help her, he said. Mari didn’t want to fall back into the same kind of mindless dependence she had with the Seven, but she didn’t want to do it alone. She didn’t have to do it alone.
Mari’s eyelids fluttered as she took one last look at the man sitting beside her. He was nothing like the Seven. Their relationship was nothing like she had with the Seven. He was selfless. Mari needed that, she realized. She needed someone to be selfless. She needed him, not in the way she used to need the Seven. She depended on him, but she was not without her sense of self anymore. Mari could never do this on her own; she needed him and Regan, and that was good. She could do more than she ever thought she could before because of them. All the Seven ever did was keep her from doing anything good. Dainan and Regan encouraged her, inspired her to do good. It was okay to need people, Mari decided. She didn’t think any of them were built to be alone.
* * *
When Mari woke up, Dainan was still sitting by her side, except he was reading silently. Mari blinked her eyes, but did not move. She watched him as his eyes darted about the pages. He had his brow furrowed in concentration. Mari kind of liked just watching him. It was quiet. It was peacefully quiet. What a difference that word made.
Dainan rubbed his head and set the book down. He turned his head and jumped slightly at seeing her already awake. Mari sat up and he asked, “Have you been awake long?”
Mari shook her head and stretched her arms. “Have you been able to figure out what the Seven want with the book?”
Dainan leaned his head back, digging his fingers into his hair. “No, I thought it would be obvious once I started looking, but the book is just about the history of our kingdom, nothing I wasn’t already familiar with. I can’t imagine what they found in here that got them so excited.”
Mari lowered her head. The bright warm feeling from earlier had faded. The book wasn’t helpful at all. She wasn’t helpful. “I’m sorry. If I remembered more, I would tell you, but I don’t. Rekema questioned the scholars twice about something, and mentioned she would go to them again if they did not find what they were looking for, but I don’t remember any of the details. I just remember the scholars refused, and Rekema was so angry.”
“The scholars?” Regan asked from across the room, sitting up. “You mean Aeary and Prentiss?”
“Are those their names?” Mari asked pulling on her skirt hem. “I had forgotten.”
“I remember, that day when they brought out the prisoners. Several of us were left behind because we couldn’t make it out of the dungeon without assistance. I was left behind because of my son, or possibly because the guards still had some loyalty and didn’t want to put me at risk. Prentiss was left behind as well. He couldn’t walk.” Regan’s face clouded. She did not seem to be looking at anything Mari could see. “He screamed and fussed the entire time because his wife, Aeary, had been brought out.”
Mari closed her eyes, rubbing her pounding head. Sharp images flew in front of her sight.
“Mari, are you remembering?” A hand touched her shoulder. “I remember that day as well. It was the second time you came to see me. You came to me right after this happened. It was the day I told you I believed you.”
“I remember…” She grunted, bending over further. Clutching her head and stomach, Mari choked. Every breath hurt. Each word hit her like a knife in the chest. Someone was screaming, but Mari was certain she was the only one who heard it. She forced her head up and opened her eyes. “I… Bidkar… We broke her leg. Her name is Aeary, you said?”
“Yes, once the prisoners were returned to the dungeon, what happened, well no one wanted to talk about it. Apparently, whatever had been done was extremely effective. Everyone was pretty quiet about it, but I did overhear the entire thing was all about the fact no one was willing to answer your questions.” Regan knelt down by Mari and Dainan; her skirt pooled around her.
Mari lurched forward. Her nose brushed against the cold stone; her hair spilled over her face. She cradled her head, digging her nails into her scalp. “I can’t remember the questions. Why… Why can’t I remember?”
The sound of bones breaking echoed in her head like a bell toll. She couldn’t breathe. A word came to her, but what did it mean? “Mercy.”
“What did you say?” Dainan leaned in. His hand was on her back.
Mari shook her head. “I don’t know. I can only remember useless things.”
“Don’t hurt yourself trying to remember. That won’t help any of us.” His words drowned out the other noise. Mari seized the opportunity and took back her mind, shutting out the other fragmented memories vying for her attention.
She rubbed her head. “I’m sorry. It seems like the only memories I can see are painful and not at all helpful.”
“We’ll figure something out,” Regan said.
Mari sat up, pushing her hair back. Dainan rubbed her shoulder. She sighed, leaning into him. Dainan muttered, “What if…”
Mari and Regan turned to him. He cleared his throat. “Why don’t we go directly to the scholars and ask them?”
Mari groaned, “After our previous interactions, I don’t think they will.”
She reached up and let her fingers brush over the mostly healed cut Prentiss gave her. “I fear they wouldn’t be as kind or willing to answer my questions as you have been.”
“We just need to explain everything to them.” Dainan’s eyes softened, seeing her fingers trace the scar on her cheek. “It won’t be just you. Regan and I will support you. With us, they’ll be willing to help.”
His voice dropped. “You don’t have to worry about anything happening to you.”
Mari stared at her hands. She didn’t say anything.
“Dainan’s right,” Regan spoke up. “The scholars could be the key. We have to try.”
Mari balled her fist into her skirt. “I know.”
She pushed herself off of the ground. “I will bring the scholars with me tomorrow, but there is one more thing.”
“What is it?” Dainan asked, rising as well.
Mari glanced at the door. “The guard who brings you necessities, who watches over you… I worry about him.”
“What do mean worry about him?” Regan asked.
“Surely,” Mari said, twisting her face. Mari still wasn’t used to using her mind to develop ideas and reach conclusions, so when she did, she had trouble being certain. “He must suspect that something odd is happening. I had him move Regan and her son into this cell. He must notice I don’t treat you, leave you in the same state as the Seven do to the other prisoners.”
Dainan frowned. “You’re right. Do you think we should bring him in as well?”
Mari let her gaze flicker to her feet. She rocked back and forth on them. “I think so. I mean no wrong to you, but he could be incredibly useful. The guard can help me from the outside. You can’t. If you left the cell and someone saw you… it could get back to the Seven because it is odd. If I were seen with just a guard it would not be as strange. He could also help control anything that might get back to the Seven when they return.”
“That is…” Dainan started, giving her a kind, soft smile. “That is very wise of you, Mari. I agree, you should bring the guard with you tomorrow.”
Mari ducked her head. No one had called her wise before. No one had called her wonderful or smart. Could those things really be true? She, who could barely maintain a single independent thought, was smart?
She gave Dainan a nod. “It is decided. I will bring him.”
Mari reached for the door. Dainan’s voice followed her. “Until tomorrow then.”
Mari smiled over her shoulder. “Until tomorrow.”