Mari struggled to steady her breath as Muraad turned around. He rubbed his eyes, shook his head, and blinked. He stepped towards Mari. She shrunk against the wall and bowed her head.
“Mari, what are you doing out of your room? Where is this?” Muraad asked, his voice hard. Mari winced and her legs shook.
“I…uh…” Mari forced herself to revert back to the girl from the cottage in the middle of nowhere. “I…I’d been spending so much time in the room… and there was a whole castle to move around, a lot more than in the cottage. I…uh, have been walking around. That room you brought me to, I don’t remember what you called it, but it was nice. The one with all the, uh books? I wanted to go back, but I wasn’t sure, so I just kind of walked…”
“Mari, you’re not supposed to leave your room. You know that. Being bored doesn’t excuse you.” Muraad’s hand came down on her shoulder. Her knees buckled as she flinched away from him. She forced herself to peer through her hair. Muraad sighed as red scales flickered over his cheeks. Mari thought he was angry, but didn’t want her to know. “I suppose I understand slightly. I get the appeal of seeing a new world, but me doing that is completely different from you doing it. You’re not me, you’re human. Mari, you have to listen to us. We know what’s best for you; you can’t just wander around alone, for whatever reason.”
Inwardly, Mari found her heart raging and mind burning. The Seven had never told her to stay in that room! It was assumed from the way she had lived at the cottage, but they had never said such a thing. Not to mention, Muraad saying he knew what was best, that being alone wasn’t good for her. If that was true why had they left her alone in the first place! They were always leaving her alone, if it were up to them she would always be alone! She wouldn’t have anyone if they got their way.
“Ugh, look, pet,” Muraad shook his head. “I don’t have a lot of time, or else I’d explain more. Rekema barely let me come check on you, and I need to go back soon.”
Mari couldn’t believe he had the nerve to talk about how she shouldn’t be alone when he was just going to abandon her, again in a few seconds! Her legs shook from anger as she slid down the wall. Muraad groaned and kneeled in front of her. “Oh, come here, pet. The reason why I’m here isn’t to get mad and lecture you. I hate having to do that. It’s to check on you.”
Mari pushed back her hair, draining the anger from her face. Muraad grabbed her face turning it about, not paying attention to her twisting expression. He moved onto her arms. She hissed as his scales grazed and tore across the burns. Muraad did not notice or care; he still let his scales scrape the burns.
“You seem alright now, since you’re up and about. Which is surprising considering the state Balak was left in and the agony Bidkar told us you were feeling, which she enjoyed far too much if you asked me.” Muraad rocked on his heels.
Mari shied away, pressing her back as far against the wall as possible. “What happened?”
“I’m not too sure myself. You’ve got all of us stumped, pet. Balak only just started to recover. Rekema refused to let me leave until they were certain he would be alright. She’ll need me back to help tackle this problem, even though I know little about the magic arts.” Muraad shrugged.
“Magic?” Mari asked.
Muraad rolled his neck. “Don’t even worry about it. Apep is working hard to understand it, and if you need to know, she’ll be the one to tell you.”
Mari bit her lip. She hated those phrases: “Don’t worry” and “If you need to know.”
“I need to get back. Rekema’ll be waiting.” Muraad stood up. Mari stared up as he towered over her. “I won’t tell Rekema about you leaving your room, because it’s not going to happen again. Stay there. It’s what’s best. Trust me, neither one of us wants to experience what will happen if you do this again, pet.”
He was gone. He didn’t even wait for an answer, but he hadn’t even bothered to ask a question. It never occurred to him she might refuse or that she might be sick of always agreeing. When had she ever refused him before? When hadn’t she bowed and agreed to the Seven’s will?
It burned her. Muraad’s dismissive treatment of her burned worse than the marks on her arms. Deciding what she can and can’t know. It was the Seven’s fault she was so different from other humans, why she had so much catching up to do. They had controlled everything about her, molding her into a doll. They made a doll who couldn’t even conceive of the word no. Mari couldn’t stop herself. She dug her hands into her hair and screamed. Rage ripped through her; the pain in her arms heightened. Her voice tore through the air, shredding her own ears.
Her voice cracked and gave out quickly, leaving tears to roll down her cheeks. She hiccupped and struggled to breathe, angrier still because she was crying and because her voice wasn’t strong enough to keep going.
Footsteps run through the air. Mari looked up just as someone pulled her into an embrace. Mari wrapped her arms around them and buried her head into their shoulder. She didn’t understand why she was crying. She was mad, furious, not sad, and the tears wouldn’t stop, just making her more upset. They were whispering to her, holding her head. It had taken Mari a while, longer than most, but in that moment, she just started to believe that she might be lucky enough to have what she had been missing that day she first met Regan and her son. She had what the Seven had never really been to her. Family, people who cared about her just because she existed.
Mari looked up to see Regan as she tried to slow her breathing. Regan rubbed Mari’s shoulder and said, “You ran out so quickly, I came after you, but I, heard, your half of the conversation between you and…”
“Muraad,” Mari rasped; her voice grating against the air as she stared at the ground. “Muraad came to check on me.”
“If he came to check on you, what got you so upset?” Regan spoke softly, like she did to her son.
“Muraad,” Mari sighed. How did she explain her relationship with him? What was her relationship with him anymore? She didn’t know. Did she even know him anymore?
“Muraad is my favorite, was my favorite? I don’t know anymore. Throughout my life he was always the one who looked after me, cared for me. Of course, I never realized until I met Dainan and saw how you and he care for each other… Muraad has never cared for me quite like that.”
Mari leaned back against the wall and Regan sat next to her. Mari narrowed her eyes at the space Muraad had been. Her mind churned. “I’m not sure why, but Muraad has always been more attuned to me. My needs, not really desires, but back when it was just me and the Seven in the cottage, he always seemed to know when I needed sleep or food before I did. However he has not done so as much recently. I assume because he has not been around. But… most times when the Seven leave me in such a horrific state as they have been, he is the one who makes sure I am safe. He has cared for me, and I can’t forget that… but it is not always a good care. It is not like you and Dainan.”
“I understand.” Regan nodded, stretching her legs out. “He cares for you, but he doesn’t love you.”
Mari turned to Regan, pushing her hair out of her hair. She had heard that word before, but she could not remember when, or what its meaning was. She frowned before asking, “What is love, exactly?”
Regan sighed and rubbed her head. “I forgot, you’ve come so far, but there’s a lot you haven’t learned yet. Well, there’s different kinds of love, but at its core, love is when you consciously make sacrifices, big or small, for someone you care about.”
Wait, Mari did not understand. She furrowed her brow. “That is the same thing as being selfless.”
“I suppose, but the kind of love in relationships, in families is motivated because of affection and caring. You can be selfless with a stranger, but that doesn’t mean you have the same relationship with them as you would your family. And, unfortunately, not all love is selfless. Some people love and make some sacrifices, but not at a cost to themselves. There are also different kinds of love in general. The way I love my brother is different from the way I loved my husband.” Regan explained.
“But, you and your husband were parents, so you were a family, yes?” Mari turned, facing Regan.
“Yes, but you have a different relationship with each family member because everyone is different. Personalities are different. Even if I had another brother, my relationship with him would be very different from my relationship with Dainan. Most often, family is defined by sharing blood.” Regan started to twist a ring on one of her fingers.
Mari ran a hand over her skin, feeling small pangs shoot up her arms. “I… how could I find my family? What if I can’t? What do I do if I don’t have any family? I used to think the Seven, Muraad really, was enough, but he’s not. What I had, what I thought I had with them was nothing like what you have.”
“Mari, if you could find your original family, we would be so happy for you, but family can be the people who are closest to you. People who care about you regardless of whether or not you share blood. People who commit to you, make sacrifices for you. People who you would do the same for.” Regan caught Mari’s eyes. “My husband and I didn’t share blood, but he was still my family in a way, not the same as other family members, but someone I wanted to share a family with. He was someone I got to choose to add to my family. I made a commitment to him, and he to me.”
“So, Aeary and Prentiss? They are family like you and your husband were family, even though they themselves don’t have children?” Mari asked.
“Yes, when they got married they still became a family. Their commitment doesn’t fundamentally change if they were to have children. They would still be committed to each other; they would just have a new commitment to their children as well. It’s all a bit complicated.” Regan shook her head. “In general, husbands and wives have what is called romantic love. Other family members have familial or platonic love for each other.”
Mari remembered when Prentiss had taken Aeary’s hand the first time the Seven confronted them. They had been quite a force together. She remembered how they had yelled out for each other when Bidkar forced her to hurt them, how Prentiss had begged for her to leave Aeary alone. Their partnership… Mari couldn’t help but admire it.
“The kind of commitment Aeary and Prentiss have… that romantic love. That sounds like a very good thing. Difficult, but worth it.” Mari stared at her raw hands. “I think I would like that.”
Regan smiled. “I think that would be good for you. It’s certainly not easy, and you’d have a lot to learn as you go on, I know I did, but in the end it was worth it.”
“Even though you lost him?”
“Yes, even then.” Regan said as she glanced back at her ring.
There was a moment of silence. Mari did not speak, just watched as Regan was deep in her own thoughts and memories. How interesting it was to see someone else be so deep in their head.
Regan shook herself out of her daze and stood up. She reached down and helped Mari to her feet. “You have a lot to think about. How about you get some rest, and I’ll let everyone else know you’re alright?”
Mari nodded; it had been a bit overwhelming having them all there when she knew so little. Regan was right; she needed to think. “Thank you, I mean it, your help, everyone’s help means so much to me.”
“I know I speak for both myself and Dainan that we are more than happy to help you.” Regan gave Mari a comforting hug. Mari smiled. She still wanted answers about her blood family, but she had what she needed.