Mari shut the door to Dainan’s cell behind her, sighing. The book may not have been as useful as she had hoped, but they had a new plan. Keeping one hand on the wall to steady herself, Mari had to admit to herself that the plan… uh, what had Dainan called it, fear? Or was the right word afraid? The plan made her afraid. Despite Dainan’s and Regan’s warm words, Mari was not as certain as they were that she could convince the scholars and the guard. The only way she had been able to convince Dainan was not through words or even actions of her own. The only thing that convinced him were the actions of the Seven, how they used her. Regan had been hostile and unwilling to believe her even with Dainan’s help. It was only the fact Mari had a fit over the memory that caused her to believe Mari.
Displaying the Seven’s control over her was certainly out of the question, and Mari would not like to try to send herself into a fit. She had no control of herself while in that state, and she had never consciously caused one. If Mari tried to use it to convince the scholars and the guard, she had no guarantee she could do it or that it would work.
Mari stepped into her room. She carefully shut the door, turning and letting her head rest against the cool wood. Her temples throbbed. It took Mari a moment before she breathed and pushed off the door. She sunk her feet into the plush fabric on the floor, carpet, Dainan had told her once. Mari stopped at the dresser. The crown sat on top of it. Mari blinked and tilted her head. She had not remembered to grab it this time. She looked up at her reflection. Why did she normally take the crown with her every time she left the room? Why did she forget it this time? The first time she had worn it, Mari wanted everyone to look at her like they looked at her when the Seven controlled her. She certainly didn’t want that anymore. When people looked at her like that, they weren’t seeing her. She wanted people to see her as who she was, not as the Seven’s figurehead. What did Dainan see when she wore his crown? Did he see the Seven? The girl who had taken everything from him? Or did he see her despite it all? Maybe she should ask. Maybe she shouldn’t.
Mari groaned and rubbed her head. She wondered if she would ever stop having questions. Mari was beginning to believe she would always have them, even about the small things that didn’t matter, like the story Dainan had been reading. She had so many insignificant questions she held back. For example, she wanted to ask if Dainan’s past relative wore a crown and if that crown was actually the same one she had before her. How odd that would be, but she still wondered. What happened in the rest of the story? She had fallen asleep and had not heared the end. Did the prince ever take back his throne? What about the young woman who helped him and her friend who lived all alone in the forest?
Mari could have hit herself. She was getting distracted. Shutting her eyes, Mari ran her hands over her face and through her hair. Dainan had to be mistaken. She wasn’t nearly as wise or smart as he seemed to think. Mari peered around her fingers. There was a problem to solve. How was she going to convince the scholars it had been the Seven who had done everything to them and that she didn’t remember the details?
The pounding in her head made it difficult to focus. Mari took a seat on the edge of the bed. The room tilted, and she felt rather lightheaded. Had she eaten today? Mari grabbed her stomach, gritting her teeth. Her blood bubbled. She had to focus. She had to stop thinking about insignificant things. Her hunger could wait. Mari had to solve this problem.
Holding her head in her hands, Mari decided the best way to solve the problem was to examine her options. The easiest option before her was to do nothing. Mari could let Dainan explain everything for her, like with Regan. She could leave it to him to convince the scholars and guard. Mari trusted him that wasn’t what caused her hesitation. It was the fact that this was her problem. Whether or not she ever agreed to this or liked it, the Seven were her issue. They were, in a way, part of her. They were the reason she was the way she was. They were her past. As the only person who had any contact with them, as their pet, Mari felt this was her problem to fix. She couldn’t sit back and let everyone else fix it for her. She had to do something. All her life she had been a passive tool. Mari was sick of being passive. The Seven were her problem and her responsibility.
It may be easier to let Dainan do it for her, but it was the opposite of selflessness. Mari wanted Dainan’s help, but she didn’t want him to do everything for her. She needed him, yes, but she didn’t need him to do everything for her. Mari didn’t have to do this, but she wanted to. Mari wasn’t willing to let go of her responsibility simply for her own comfort.
On the other hand, Mari knew that even if she could explain her situation, she still lacked anything convincing other than Dainan’s word. The scholars hadn’t been in the city when the Seven destroyed the wall. That was the only instance Mari could remember and could use as an example of the Seven’s inhuman power. Maybe something had happened the day the Seven confronted Aeary again, or the day Balak and the twins took over, but Mari couldn’t remember the details of the first instance and had blacked out for the majority of the second. She knew Balak had destroyed several buildings, but Mari did not know where or if it could be proof. Even so, would it be enough proof? If Mari could get her memories back of the day with Aeary, well… If Mari had her memories they may not even need the scholars. Mari’s missing memories could solve a lot of her problems. But the only way she knew how to get them back was through a fit, and there were far too many issues with that, Mari’s lack of control being the first.
A knock at the door interrupted her thoughts. She was relived to find dinner had been brought up. She hoped eating something would clear the dizzying fog around her thoughts. Mari ate quickly, hoping the awful feeling would pass, but she was all too aware the only one to blame was herself. How could she forget to eat? Well it had always been rather easy for her to forget. It took Muraad’s reminders when she was littler to remember to eat. He always seemed to enjoy her eating much more than she did. Mari knew it gave her energy, but when the Seven had been around all the time, she never really seemed to crave the energy. Now that they had been leaving her, she seemed to need to eat more often than she was accustomed to. She had been too caught up in her excitement and worry over the book and any information it had to remember to eat.
Of course, she had not realized before that eating too quickly when she felt faint would not help her either. Once she was done, her stomach continued to groan. Mari decided to lie down. She wanted to stop being so dependent on others, but she couldn’t even take care of herself. How stupid was she to forget to eat that morning? It was a wonder she had managed to survive long enough without the Seven to even meet Dainan in the first place. She hated it. Mari hated how she wanted to solve this problem, but could not find an answer. She wanted to be active, to do good, to help, but she felt utterly useless. How could she help anyone when she couldn’t help herself? She couldn’t take care of herself much less take care of Dainan or Regan. How could she stand on her own feet when her entire life someone else had held her up with a set of strings? Her legs couldn’t bear the weight. If she did not have Dainan and Regan to help her, she would fall.
She curled her legs underneath her and gripped the covers. Mari stared out at the empty bedroom; her stomach rolled as thoughts about the next day filled her head again. Her own voice questioned her, doubted her, and tormented her. She wanted to sleep hoping the pain she caused herself would go away, but was terrified of the pain she knew would come in her dreams. Either way, it would be her own harsh voice tearing her apart, forcing her to her knees.
What would happen tomorrow when she tried to stand? Mari did not know. She let her eyes close as she curled into the sheets. She had not solved her problem, and the nightmare was coming.
* * *
Mari rubbed at her eyes, trying to clear her vision because what she saw before her simply could not be true.
“Finally, she wakes up after all that screaming. Did she always sleep that much?”
Mari wanted to pull the covers over her head. Her stomach churned. Apep’s eyes pierced Mari’s soul. Could she tell what Mari was thinking? Did she know Mari had been leaving the room? Could Apep see right through her?
Apep sighed, shaking her head. Her hood fell back slightly. Mari did not recoil at the ritualistic patterns on her face. Even though Mari seldom saw Apep’s face, she was not entirely unaccustomed. “You have no patience, which, normally, is fine, great even, but we’re dealing with Mari here. You’re going to have to have a little patience, Balak, or else we won’t get anywhere.”
Mari shrunk into the bed as much as she could. Her mind froze. It didn’t make sense. Why were they there? All Mari could do was stare at them.
Balak huffed and eyed Mari, but did not respond. Apep cleared her throat, and Mari’s mind started to turn again. Her heart contorted, and something deep within Mari, deeper still than the Seven’s grip on her ever had been, pleaded. She did not know to who, but she pleaded anyway. Please, don’t let them be here for Dainan. Mari didn’t care whatever other kind of pain it may cause her. Just don’t let them hurt him.
“Mari, get up. Rekema sent us to start preparing you,” Apep said. For a moment, Mari’s heart loosened. A freeing sensation flooded her. They weren’t there for Dainan. She had been answered.
Mari sat up; Apep’s words hit her. She clenched the sheets in her hands. Something was about to happen. Something bad. Something terrifying. Something painful. Mari would gladly bear it in place of losing Dainan. “Prepare for what?”
Apep scowled, and Mari recalled how she used to follow along silently, asking few questions. If she was not careful, it wouldn’t be long before they figured out how much she had truly changed. “You don’t need to know yet. Now, get up.”
Mari forced herself to let go of the sheets and stand up. Her heart started to beat faster. She brushed her skirt off, waiting for one of them to take control, like always.
Balak grunted, “Let’s go.”
The two turned towards the door. Mari stared at them. They had not taken control. They wanted her to follow them willingly.
Apep glanced over her shoulder and shook her head. “I need you focused and in your best condition for what we’re about to do.”
Mari stumbled forward. This sounded awful. She didn’t want to go with them. The way Balak’s tattoos moved sent shivers through her heart. His anticipation filled the air, and Mari had learned by now that anything that filled Balak with excitement filled her with dread.
She followed them anyway, comforting herself with the fact Dainan would be safe. No matter what was about to happen, she could make it through. Dainan would be on the other side. Any suffering in between, Mari could take it. Was that selfless of her?
* * *
The second Mari stepped out of the castle, she noticed how the air changed. For a moment, just a moment, right before anyone had seen her, the world seemed bright, lighter, and warmer. Mari wanted to throw her arms open and her head back and bask in the light. It was an atmosphere unlike any she had ever felt before, but it was gone in an instant. Apep and Balak were not far behind her. The moment they joined Mari, the air turned dark, heavy, and cold. Mari froze.
People in the streets slowed. Their kind, loud chatter slowly faded away to rough whispers. People glanced over their shoulders, going still at the sight of Mari in front of the castle. She was not wearing the crown, but that did not matter. No one seemed to look at her any differently than when she did wear it. Apep nudged Mari. “Come on. Don’t mind them. We’re going somewhere else.”
Mari sucked in a deep breath, resisting the urge to wrap her arms around herself in an attempt to hold in any remaining scrap of warmth left from before. She forced herself to give Apep a nod, trying to be as submissive and passive as the Seven believed her to be. “Where to?”
Apep opened her mouth, but before Mari could hear, Balak grabbed Mari by her hair. He dragged her behind him, muttering under his breath. Mari grit her teeth, not surprised or unused to Balak’s treatment of her. For as long as she could remember, he had liked pulling on her hair even though he could just as easily control her the other way. Mari thought he did it because he wanted to watch her wince and stumbled over her feet. Mari’s teeth dug into her lip, struggling to keep up with him. She would not let him get the better of her. She pushed forward, getting her balance back and keeping up with his pace. He grunted, giving her hair another harsh pull. Mari’s response was to bite down harder.
Before Mari even realized it, all the people and complete buildings around the castle had faded into the distance. She was now surrounded by no one and broken, ruined buildings. Apep was huffing as Balak came to a stop, shoving Mari downward. Mari thrust her hands out, barely catching herself. Sharp, burning pangs hit her hands, and the taste of metal seeped into her mouth.
Apep grabbed Balak’s shoulder. “How could you already forget what I said about patience?”
“I didn’t forget,” Balak said. Mari glanced up to see him staring at the blood dripping from her lip and onto her chin. Mari wiped it off, trying to keep her face blank. He turned to Apep. “I just don’t care.”
Apep pushed him back a step. “You’ll care when Rekema comes down on you about not following orders. Now shut up, we have work to do.”
Mari looked around. She did not recognize where they were. A breeze lifted her hair. Maybe it wasn’t so unknown… a voice whispered in her head, but she didn’t quite make out the words.
Every building nearby was either a broken shell or nothing more than debris. Anyone who had been in the area before was long gone. When had this happened? During one of the gaps in her memories? During her black out? Nothing was left. Why had they come there?
“Sit up, Mari,” Apep commanded. She hesitated for only a moment, but Apep’s sharp eyes narrowed. Mari obeyed, and Apep said nothing. Her hands still stung, but Mari ignored it as she sat up. Apep took a seat across from her, dragging Balak down as well. He huffed, but copied her crossed legged position. At Apep’s forceful look, Mari mimicked the position as well.
“What are we doing?” Mari asked. The moment the words left her mouth, she snapped it shut and stared at her lap. She hadn’t meant to speak. The Seven never seemed to enjoy it when she asked questions, so Mari had grown used to keeping most of them to herself. Back in the cottage, Mari hadn’t minded because she didn’t have many questions. Recently, however, Mari had grown used to being able to ask Dainan any question she liked.
“Hm,” Apep pursed her lips. “Relax, close your eyes.”
Mari glanced at Balak; her heart started to beat faster. She didn’t want to close her eyes while he was there. Not being able to see him left her afraid he would take control. It wasn’t rational; he could take control and force her to do all kinds of awful things regardless of whether or not her eyes were open. Why did it have to be him? What would happen when she shut her eyes?
Apep cleared her throat. Mari had to; she had to get through this. It took every shred of courage she had for Mari to force her eyes closed.
Her hands shook, so she buried them in the fabric of her skirt. The wind swirled about. Her hand brushed her face. Apep and Balak’s presence thrummed in her mind. That was odd. Mari knew exactly where they were even though she couldn’t see them. The inhuman energy seemed to be etched into her beyond just her physical senses.
“I told you to relax. You’ll only hurt yourself if you don’t,” Apep said.
Mari took a deep breath. As she let it out, her shoulders slumped forward. Her fists loosened. However much Mari hated it, every interaction with the Seven told her to follow instructions. Bad things happened if she didn’t. Bad things happened if she did, but at least following them lessened some of the damage to herself.
“Better, now clear your mind, continue to breathe deeply. Ignore everything.” Apep’s voice was lofty as if she was amidst the clouds, completely detached from anything solid.
Mari focused on her breathing. How monotonous. The constant in and out. But Mari did it anyway, in and out, trying to ignore everything else.
Balak stood up. Mari couldn’t help but notice his large, suffocating power move. She continued to breathe to the same slow beat as before, but her focus was on him. His presence came towards her. Mari fought to keep her heart from beating out of her chest and to keep her breathing steady. Her hands clenched in her lap; she couldn’t help it. He kept coming closer. Why was he coming closer? What was he about to do?