Mari hadn’t been able to fall asleep. She had lain on the bed, clutching the large white shirt she had taken to sleeping in. Her head was filled with thoughts about family, love, selflessness, and Dainan who Mari could not seem to separate from the other thoughts.
Eventually, she was able to get a small amount of rest in fits and bursts before the pulling happened. Mari kept her head down. Her hair was splayed across her face and over the pillows. She peered out through the strands, wondering what Apep was going to do.
“Are you awake?”
Mari sighed and sat up. She pushed her hair out of her face. Apep put a hand on her hip and shot Mari a harsh, disapproving look. Mari glanced down at the shirt. Apep huffed, “Don’t bother explaining, just put on your normal dress. We have a lot to do.”
Mari didn’t want to. She wanted to tell Apep no. She didn’t want anything to do with what Apep had planned, not after what happened last time. But, she had to, not because the Seven took away her choice, but because she had a choice. She made her choice and that involved getting as much information from them as she could. She was the only one who could.
Mari slid out of bed and quickly changed. Mari didn’t like having to wear her filthy, stained dress in comparison to the clean, soft shirt. She didn’t like to think about where the red stains had come from.
“Don’t take the crown. We don’t need it, and I, unlike our esteemed leader, don’t care to flaunt it about,” Apep commanded.
Mari looked at it, sitting on the dresser. Apep stood by the door. “Rekema always had a flair for the dramatic, but I prefer subtly. Only, I don’t get a vote. Now, come on.”
Mari opened the door and started down the stairs. Apep stepped in front of her, leading the way. Mari forced her face to remain blank and neutral as opposed to reflecting the displeasure storming in her.
Apep paused at the foot of the stairs, pointing to the guards, saying, “Tell one of them to lead you to the vault.”
Mari opened her mouth, not to talk to the guards, but to ask what a vault was, when Apep hugged and pushed her forward. Mari tightened her control over herself. She stared one guard in the eyes and lifted her head. “Take me to the vault.”
Rekema would have been proud. The thought made Mari sick.
The guard bowed his head, saying, “Of course, your Majesty.”
He led the way, and Mari begrudgingly followed him with Apep a few steps in front of her. Mari knew she needed to pay attention so she could give Dainan and the scholars useful information, but that was easier said than done when her mind was screaming in rage. She sighed, wishing she could be with the others rather than Apep.
Mari winced, trying not to make a sound when her hand scraped against the wall, aggravating the burn on her hand. Mari wrapped her arms around her, gripping herself so tightly it hurt. She hoped that whatever Apep was about to put her through wouldn’t leave her in the same state as the last time.
The guard led Mari in what she thought was the direction of the library, but turned and took her down a stairwell, grabbing and lighting a torch along the way. Mari tried to get a glimpse of Apep’s face, but she had pulled the hood of her robe up. Mari shivered and stuck her hand out to hold onto the wall.
The cold seeped through her skin and into her bones. The guard’s heavy metal boots drowned out any other noise.
The guard finally stopped in front of a large heavy door. Metal clinked, and Mari watched the guard unlock and pull open the door. He bowed, handed Mari the keys and torch, and left. Mari turned to Apep.
“Don’t just stand there. I already told you we have work to do.” Apep stepped through the doorway. Mari clenched her first around the keys, forcing down her urge to snap and throw the keys at her.
Mari took a deep breath before following. As she pushed the door open further, she set the torch on the wall so that it lit up the room. She shook her head and blinked as she tried to understand the room before her.
It reminded her of the library, but it was different. There were shelves and chests, but no books. The shelves lined the walls, fitting nicely underneath arches and in alcoves. Throughout the room chests were organized neatly. Rather than books filling the shelves, small boxes that looked like tiny chests filled them.
Mari ignored Apep’s sharp looks as she walked to one shelf and picked up a box. She turned it over, liking how the light from the torch bounced off the metal and jewels.
A hand grabbed her arm and jerked it back. Mark gasped as she lost her grip on the box. It smashed against the ground; the sound scraped against her ears. Mari’s heart jumped in her chest. Her hands shook.
“Mari, focus,” Apep said. Mari swallowed thickly, but nodded. Apep released her arm. “Now, take those keys and start opening the locked ones and don’t drop any of them.”
Mari bowed her head, hiding a scowl. She did as Apep commanded. Mari picked up a box and tried several of the keys on the lock. After the fourth key, it clicked open. Mari’s displeasure went away. She reached in and pulled out a metal chain that had several bright, sparkling jewels on it. The way it shimmered in the light was absolutely gorgeous.
“Put it down and open the other ones,” Apep said. Mari’s good mood disappeared. She set the chain back down and put the box back on the shelf. It was a relief to her that the same key also opened the next box. Mari barely got a moment to see its contents where similar to the last box before Apep barked at her to put it back.
Apep then directed her to a different set of shelves, telling her which boxes to open. Mari saw a lot of strange things. Objects made entirely of metal and jewels. Some of them were in very strange shapes and sizes. One box held a handful of metal bands with tiny jewels and all were so small she could hold all of them in her hand. Mari lost count of how many boxes she had opened and chests she had rifled through when Apep called out, “Stop, stop!”
Mari looked up from the chest she was elbow deep into. Apep leaned over Mari’s shoulder, pointing at something. “There, see that broken staff?”
Mari leaned in and saw it buried underneath several heavy, metal items. She nodded and started to dig for the staff.
Apep grinned. “Now, pick it up, but be careful.”
“What is it? Why do you want it?” Mari asked as she got a hold of the first piece of the staff.
“You’ll find out in just a minute, if there even is anything to know. It may be nothing anyway.” Apep waved her off. Mari huffed as she grabbed the second piece. She gave a grunt as she pulled it out from under everything else.
Mari stumbled to her feet, shifting the two staff pieces in her hands. The top of the staff held a broken crystal protected from further damage by the wood wrapping around it like a cage.
“It’s a shame it’s broken… hopefully it’ll still work,” Apep mumbled. She grabbed Mari’s arms and started positioning them so the markings along the two pieces lined up. When the pieces clicked together, Mari felt something jolt through her. It didn’t hurt, just startled her into taking a step back.
“You felt that?” Apep asked.
“What was it?” Mari held the staff together and looked it over. The way the carvings and markings intertwined up the wood sent a shiver up her spine.
“It responded to you. It was magic.” Apep took Mari’s arms and repositioned them again. It was fortunate Apep had Mari’s arms or else Mari would have dropped the staff.
Her legs started to shake. Her voice scraped against her throat, coming out as not more than a breath. “Magic?”
“Yes, keep up, now, let’s see just how much it’ll respond to you.” Apep let go and moved so she was directly in front of Mari.
“I know a little about human magic, so just do what I tell you.”
Mari wondered how that was any different from usual.
“Remember that sensation of power you had had. You’ll need to reach for it again.” Apep pushed her hood back and stepped away from Mari. Mari’s head was spinning. That just couldn’t be true. Magic, really? Her?
“Point the staff at that wall over there, where the unlit torch is.” Mari slowly lifted the staff waiting for it to slip from her shaking fingers. Her thundering heartbeat made Apep’s voice seem so far away. “We’ll see if you can light it. Listen carefully, I’m only going to give you the incantation for fire once.”
Mari listened carefully to the foreign syllables that left Apep’s mouth. Mari took a deep breath; she didn’t really understand what was happening. Apep seemed convinced Mari had magic, but Mari didn’t know what to think. She knew Apep would force an effort out of her, and there was a small part of Mari that wanted to know as well.
Mari recalled that small jolt she felt when she first held the staff. It had shot through her similar to Balak’s power, but it was so different and so much better. Her throat constricted as she adjusted her grip. She choked out the incantation, garbling the odd words.
“Do better,” Apep ordered, crossing her arms. Mari winced. She licked her lips and adjusted her footing. Apep said, “Focus on your target, on your words, and on your power.”
Mari tried to. She narrowed her eyes at the torch. She repeated the incantation in her head. She held onto that right power she felt from the staff. When she tried again, she made sure her voice was clear. Sparks flew from the top of the staff, but not fire.
Mari jerked back; her heart leaped and started to pound. Had that been her? Those sparks… Could she really do things like that?
Mari nearly dropped the staff again.
But she had done something at least! She had caused those sparks! Unless… that was pathetic by magical standards. Pathetic… well, Apep wasn’t exactly wrong, was she? Not too long ago, Mari herself had been lamenting how useless she was. She had been beating herself up over how she couldn’t take care of herself. Maybe that was just how things would always be for Mari.
She would always be pathetic, no matter what.
No… the Seven were getting back into her head. She couldn’t let that happen, not when she had made so much progress. Wonderful was what he had called her. Wonderful and smart. She had been so afraid she would never be able to get up that day, so afraid what would happen to her if she didn’t make it to the castle. But… despite that she had done it. That something good that she had felt when she stood on her feet, that something let her know it was possible for her to do it that gave her that strength.
She was wonderful and smart and strong.
She held onto that good. She would never be pathetic as long as she had that; Mari was certain.
Mari took another breath, squared her shoulders, and lifted the staff. She spat out the incantation, taking care with each sound, but putting as much force as she could muster behind it. Her sheer will was behind each word. Beautiful, warm, bright power filled her.
The torch across the room burst in flames. Orange and red danced around it, far stronger than the fire of a normal torch. Seconds later, the torch burst, cracking the wood in two, falling apart.
Mari gasped, dropping the staff. She stumbled backwards, feeling the power slip from her grasp and the strain hit her. The staff crashed against the ground, and the sound rung in her ears. Her chest heaved as she gasped for air, staring at the burnt pieces of the torch. That was her. She had done that.
“That was… that must be…I need to go. You pose a lot more questions and… complications. One of us will be around in a few days.”
Mari had stopped paying attention to Apep. When she turned her head, Apep was gone.
A cry tore itself from Mari’s throat as she dropped to her knees. Mari had magic, and now the Seven knew. Mari wanted to be excited, to be happy at the new revelation. It had been wonderful, using it. Mari could finally do something. It was a way she could help, be useful, a way she could fight the Seven. Mari hadn’t realized until the moment she used magic how badly she wanted it.
Mari continued to gasp, trying to stop the tears coming down her face. She wrapped her arms around herself, staring at the burns still scarring her skin.
The Seven knew. Apep had expected this. That good deep inside her… Again, Mari pleaded aloud, not knowing to who. Her voice broke from the sobs. “Please, please don’t let the Seven take this from me. Don’t let them ruin this. Please, don’t let them use this magic in me to hurt people. Let this gift be for good. Let me be good. Please.”