Her fingers tangled into the scraps and tears of her skirt. The crown had lost much of its shine. There was far too much grime and stains on it to glint and gleam like it did the day the Seven first brought her to the castle. Her reflection tilted its head, blinking back at her. The reflection touched the harsh red marks on her face; Mari hissed in pain. Was it normal for burns to be the same shape and size on both sides of her face? They were perfectly identical on both cheeks and under her eyes, maybe she should ask about it.
She frowned. She had to focus. One deep breath later, Mari tried to shut out all the lingering pain from the red patches decorating the rest of her. She didn’t know what she was going to say; that wasn’t new for her, but this was important. This time it mattered what Mari said. She had to convince them. She could not bear to think of what it would mean if she failed.
Mari forced her shoulders to relax. Dainan always seemed to have the right words naturally. If he could do it all the time, surely she could manage it just this once. Mari had to convince them not just for her own sake.
The crown stayed on the dresser when she left the room. Sharp pangs shot up her feet and legs as she walked. The harsh red marks on the bottom of her feet scraped the rough stone. Mari bit her lip, trying to ignore the pain. She nearly split her lip open when she reached the bottom of the stairs. She fought to keep her expression neutral so the guards wouldn’t suspect anything. Their eyes flickered towards her, and their brows creased as they took in the state she was in. The urge to sprint away from their gazes hit her, but she forced herself to maintain her pace.
It seemed to take much longer for her to get past them than usual. If Mari didn’t know better, she would have sworn their eyes scorched more patches into her skin. Once she was out of sight, she let out the breath she’d been holding in. Mari increased her pace knowing no one was around to think oddly of it. The speed seemed to help occupy her mind. At the very least, it gave her something to do with her nervous energy. She reached the hall connecting to Dainan’s cell. The guard was there. He had not noticed her yet, which surprised her. Mari thought he would have heard her footsteps. Mari froze, trying to collect her thoughts and her words.
Her pained steps rang out, and she cleared her throat. The guard looked up and his face twisted as he noticed her skin. He bowed his head and turned to walk down a connecting hallway.
“Wait!” Mari’s voice grated across the air like stone pulled across stone. Her voice had not fully recovered from the day before.
He froze. Mari’s breath caught in her throat. He turned back to her, asking, “What is it, your Majesty?”
Mari coughed, trying to ignore how her throat ached. She could not force her voice to be any louder. “Take me to the scholars. I have a matter of importance to discuss with them.”
“Of course, your Majesty.” The guard bowed. He straightened up stiffly and walked towards her.
Mari looked up at him. His hair had specks and streaks of gray mixed in it. His face had several creases in it. He didn’t really look like anyone else she had seen before. Mari asked, “What’s your name?”
The guard stared at her as if she had said something she wasn’t supposed to. He frowned and shook his head slightly. Mari wondered if she had broken some unspoken rule of conduct. She just wanted a name so she wouldn’t have to keep calling him the guard.
“Helmuth.” He didn’t wait for a response from her. The echo of his boots rung in her ears, drowning out the sound of her own bare feet as they walked in the direction of the dungeon. He led a few steps in front of her as they turned down a hallway. Helmuth did not look back at her, but rubbed at his forehead every so often. Mari decided it would be best to wait until they had the scholars before making her next attempt to speak. If she was going to make a fool of herself, she only wanted to do it once.
Her pace slowed as the dungeon came into sight, but his did not. He went up to the men at the door. They spoke in quiet, shaky tones. They glanced at her and she straightened her posture, twisting her face, letting her discomfort show. She knew they would see it differently than how she truly felt.
The clinking of the keys filled the air, and the door was opened. Mari followed Helmuth into the dungeon. The others kept their heads down as she passed. Mari heard one of them draw in their breath as well. She clenched her fist. They were afraid of her, or the Seven, or both? There was no difference between her and the Seven in their eyes.
She repressed a shiver as the cold air hit her. It took her eyes a moment to adjust to the dim light. Helmuth was a step ahead of her, but he didn’t go too far ahead of her. The whisper of chains mixed with the sound of their footsteps. Like last time, Mari paid no mind to the small voices that would filter through the air when she walked by cells. Helmuth would glance in the direction of the voice, twisting his face up, but their words meant nothing to Mari.
Mari stopped when she spotted the cell she was looking for. The man, Prentiss, scrambled to a sitting position, keeping one hand on his leg.
“What do you want now? You’ve already taken Lady Regan from us! We don’t care what you do, no one will tell you anything!”
A pang of fear shook her heart. Would anything she said matter? How could she possibly convince someone to trust her when they had already made up their mind about who she was?
The guard turned to Mari, saying, “Your Majesty, are you—”
“Yes,” Mari said. She already knew what question he was about to ask; she had just asked it as well. She was certain she had to do this, no matter what. The guard hesitated, but unlocked the door. As Helmuth placed restraints on Prentiss, he pulled away, lashing out at the guard as best he could. Helmuth forced him down, moving his leg and causing him to cry out.
Once Helmuth finally forced Prentiss’ hands behind his back, the sound of heavy metal locking rung in Mari’s head. Prentiss’ nose dripped blood onto the ground. Mari watched. It seemed somewhat fitting in a way that he be injured after he had cut up her cheek by throwing a rock; however, Mari found no pleasure in it. She didn’t really want to restrain him in the first place, but Mari knew it was necessary. The guards and other prisoners would talk if she did not; they had with Regan. There was also the high possibility Prentiss would attack her again.
The guard hauled Prentiss up, frowning at the fact Prentiss could not support his own weight. “Your Majesty, he is restrained, but still dangerous. He can barely walk, but with the way he reacted—”
“He comes,” Mari cut him off again. Something was off with Helmuth. There was something about him. Mari couldn’t put her finger on it, but it reminded her of herself when the Seven were with her. Mari shook her head, trying to focus on the task at hand. She frowned. “There is no way he cannot walk on his own?”
“Of course I can’t!” Prentiss’ voice rose. “You’re the one who broke my leg in the first place! You horrible—”
Helmuth jostled him halfheartedly. Mari blinked and turned to the guard. “Broken leg or not, he comes.”
He grunted and heaved Prentiss over his shoulder like a sack. Prentiss fussed and tried to resist, but could do nothing to Helmuth who reminded Mari of a large rock. The only discomfort Helmuth showed was from the noise rather than any of the blows Prentiss struck. Mari didn’t even pay attention to the racket. She had certainly heard worse and sounded worse herself.
This time, Mari led the way to the next cell. Prentiss thrashed and screeched even more when he realized where they were headed. His voice began to claw at Mari’s ears. “You leave her out of this! Take me, please, whatever it is do it to me, just don’t hurt her!”
Mari’s chest constricted. His words… they were so familiar to her. Had it really only been a day since she had just been pleading for something similar? Hadn’t she just been pleading that the Seven stay away from Dainan, that whatever they were going to do, to do it to her, to not hurt him?
“Prentiss?” a voice called out. Mari was jarred out of her thoughts. A torch nearby flickered, and Mari caught a glimpse of the state the woman, Aeary, was in. Like Prentiss, her leg was also positioned awkwardly, like it was broken as well. Had the Seven really done that to both of them? Had her hands done that?
Sweat glistened on the woman’s face. She was in pain. A silent, teeth-gritting, fiery pain that she refused to give into because she could not afford to. Mari felt a connection to her, just for a moment.
“Prentiss? Has she hurt you?” Aeary called out. “Are you alright?”
“Aeary!” Prentiss slammed his good foot into Helmuth’s stomach. Helmuth grunted, and the keys fell, clattering on the ground. Helmuth was too preoccupied containing Prentiss to notice.
Mari picked up the keys and moved towards the cell door. She ignored Helmuth’s protests as they were drowned out by Prentiss’ noise. Mari fumbled with the keys until she found the right one that unlocked Aeary’s cell. The woman moved away, wincing as her leg dragged across the floor. Mari paused. Prentiss had not stopped shouting. No one but Aeary could hear Mari’s strained voice. “Today is not like the past. Can you walk?”
Aeary threw her head up, eyeing her. “Your skin…”
“Can you walk?” Mari repeated, feeling her skin crawl as Aeary’s eyes traced the red patterns that decorated her.
“No,” Aeary ground out. Mari eyed her, wondering if she would come at her like Prentiss had, like a wild fox would.
“You will not attack me?” Mari asked, eyeing her fisted hands.
“I can’t stand, much less attack you. Not to mention I know what you do to people. No matter what you may think, I’m not stupid just stubborn,” Aeary sniffed, throwing her head up.
Mari waited a moment. There was a thud, and Prentiss’ screaming subsided somewhat. Mari blinked; she didn’t seem to have another option. She kneeled and reached for Aeary. Aeary lifted her arms and tried to move away, but there was nowhere to go. Mari grabbed her arm and pulled it over her own shoulders. With a grunt, Mari tried to force herself back to her feet. Her legs shook from the additional weight. She adjusted her grip and steadied Aeary by wrapping her arm around Aeary’s back. Aeary looked down at Mari being much taller than her. “What are you doing?”
“You can walk now,” Mari said. She glanced past her hair at the older woman. Mari took a few wobbly steps. It was hard enough for her own legs to carry herself after what happened the other day, carrying someone else only made it harder. The marks on her skin burned as she moved and when Aeary’s clothes scraped against them.
“Your Majesty,” the guard said. Mari blinked. Prentiss had stopped screaming a few moments before, but not for a lack of trying. One of Helmuth’s sleeves was torn and much shorter than the other. He had used it to gag Prentiss. Helmuth asked, “Why are you—?”
“She cannot walk. You cannot carry both. I need both. I can help her walk. Now, let’s go,” Mari said as she passed the keys back to him. She led Aeary out of the cell. Aeary glanced over her shoulder at Prentiss and the guard.
“Your Majesty, we can get another guard to help.” Helmuth fell into step behind her, but his face told Mari he wasn’t entirely sure why he spoke.
“No.” Mari spun around, jostling Aeary. At Helmuth’s puzzled look, she tried to hide her panic. “No, we don’t need another guard.”
Helmuth bowed his head. Mari sighed, and they continued out the dungeon. It was slower than when they first came in. The prisoners would edge up to the front of their cells, hissing and whispering. Mari grit her teeth. She could only hope the prisoners hushed words wouldn’t come back to haunt her. Risk, Mari was beginning to believe, was unavoidable.
The guard opened the door leading into the dungeon. Mari adjusted her grip on Aeary and walked out. The guards bowed their heads, but Mari could hear their unspoken questions. Her heart began to pound. She continued forward, waiting until they were out of sight to breathe a sigh of relief. Her shoulders loosened.
They had turned down a different hallway, leaving the four of them alone. Aeary said, “I could attack you now.”
Mari stopped, glancing over her shoulder. Helmuth stopped a few steps behind her with a strange look on his face. Yes, there was something like the Seven’s control around him. Their power lingered, barely. It was weaker than Mari had ever felt before. Aeary continued, “I’m not restrained. I’m right by you. I could bash your head open before that guard could stop me.”
Mari shrugged and started to move again, going towards a flight of stairs. “You said you wouldn’t.”
“I could have been lying.” Aeary adjusted her position so Mari could see her clearly.
Mari tightened her grip. She grunted as she lifted Aeary over the steps. “You weren’t. If you were going to try and attack something you don’t even think is human, you wouldn’t warn it. You would do it and catch me by surprise.”
Prentiss said something into the gag. Mari looked back at Helmuth. “Where in the castle has the best view of the city?”
“There’s a balcony in one of the vacant guest rooms. I’ve been there a few times, and I always thought it had the best view of the city,” Helmuth said. The question was written on his face, but he didn’t ask. Mari studied his face. The Seven’s slight hold could be broken easily. Mari didn’t stop to ask how she knew that.
“Then lead us there,” Mari said as they reached the top of the staircase. Helmuth bowed his head as he took the lead.
“I will explain once we are there,” Mari said in an attempt to buy herself a few more moments to find the right words.
“Wait, you said you know I was lying, but you didn’t say why I wouldn’t attack you at all.” Aeary said. Prentiss looked up at them, staring at his wife with a look Mari didn’t quite understand.
Mari couldn’t help but hiss when Aeary put pressure on one of her burns. She took a deep breath. “I thought that was obvious. You are like me.”
“In what way am I anything like you?” Aeary started to pull away. “You’re a monster.”
Mari tightened her grip. “You have questions. More questions than you can comprehend, and you crave answers; there is precious little in the world that I relate to more than that. That’s why you didn’t attack me; you need answers that I can give you.”
Aeary started to speak, but was interrupted when they stopped at a simple door. Helmuth said, “Just through his door, and then we’ll be at the balcony.”
Aeary huffed, adjusting her weight. Mari took a deep breath that shook her entire frame. Helmuth opened the door, gesturing for Mari to go first. Mari lowered her voice so only Aeary could hear, “Please, just give me a fair chance.”
There was no response as Mari helped Aeary through the door.