Mari stumbled out of the vault, eventually. Her hands continued to shake, but her legs somehow kept her upright. She shut the door behind her, but wasn’t sure if it really mattered. Who else was going to bother coming down there?
As she started up the stairs, a figure appeared at the top. Mari stopped, leaning against the wall.
“Your Majesty,” the man bowed. Mari squinted, realizing it was Helmuth.
She sighed, “It’s alright. The Seven are not with me.”
Helmuth’s shoulders relaxed as he came down the stairs to her side. “I came as soon as I heard from another guard you had demanded to be taken to the vault.”
Mari nodded as they slowly went up the stairs. “Yes, one of the Seven, Apep, came to me, wanting to prove something.”
“And?” Helmuth prompted. Mari bowed her head for a moment. How could she possibly explain this? She didn’t even understand it.
“And, it is a long story that I have not really wrapped my mind around. Will you get Aeary and meet me at Dainan’s cell?” Mari asked, leaning against the wall once they reached the top of the stairs.
“What about Prentiss?” Helmuth glanced down.
Mari shook her head. “No, neither of them has fully recovered, and I cannot ask you to carry help both.”
Helmuth eyed her. “Are you sure you can make it there without any help?”
Mari sighed, but gave him a tight smile. “I am only tired. I have done things much harder, walked greater distances, and withstood tougher trials than walking the length of this castle.”
“Then I will meet you there, your Majesty,” Helmuth said. He bowed slightly before heading to the dungeons.
Mari sighed to herself, but could not stop her erratic heartbeat or shaking hands. She hurried through the corridors, pressing her hands into her stomach. Now that she was alone again, her mind hurtled into her panic. Magic. She still couldn’t believe it. She had magic? Why hadn’t she known? More importantly, why hadn’t Apep known? Why was this only being discovered just now?
Mari came to a stop at Dainan’s door. She closed her eyes and took deep breaths. The last thing she wanted was to cause Dainan to panic as well. Mari couldn’t quite calm her heart; it still shuddered and its beat rattled in her head. She might as well go in, having forgotten how long she had been standing outside his door. She pushed open the door to see Dainan already standing, waiting for her.
Mari scrunched up her face and opened her mouth slightly. At her look, Dainan shrugged, smiling, “I heard your footsteps outside.”
Mari couldn’t help the grin that broke out. Her heart steadied at his voice. His eyes glanced down to her hands still pressed into her stomach. He asked, “Are you alright?”
It all came flooding back to her. Her throat tightened. Too afraid to speak, Mari just shook her head. The things Apep had said… all the questions she had about herself, no Mari was not alright.
Regan shifted her son to her hip and approached Mari. Regan spoke softly, “Can you tell us what happened?”
Mari cleared her throat, forcing herself to say, “Helmuth is bringing Aeary, I—”
The door opened at that moment. Mari turned to see Aeary leaning against Helmuth; her face twisted in pain. Her face was drained of color, and she huffed “Mari, you… The Seven took you to the vault?”
Mari nodded, moving to Dainan’s side, so Aeary could sit down. Dainan gently took Mari’s shoulder. She blinked up at him. His dark eyes were focused on her, and his strong look let her know she was safe.
Mari gave him a small nod before facing the room. She pushed her hair back, saying, “Yes, Apep came to me today. I knew she was coming; Murrad had told me. She, well, the day Apep and Balak came, the day I received these burns…”
Mari’s fingers absentmindedly traced the slightly faded pattern. She paid no attention to the pain, having grown used to the burns aching. “What happened was so wrong. Things did not go according to their plan. They did not know why that was why Apep came. She had a theory to test out. In order to do that she took me to the vault. She did not possess my mind like they used to.”
“What could she have wanted from the vault? It’s not like she could touch anything in there,” Regan said as she rocked her son, keeping him occupied.
Mari frowned. “There was a staff Apep wanted me to use. It was broken and old, but it worked. She had me… She had me use the staff to cast a spell.”
Silence settled over the room. Mari watched their faces. Helmuth’s eyes had widened and his mouth parted. Aeary had closed her eyes, seeming to be processing the information in her head. Regan had frozen, complete still while her son squirmed in her arms. Dainan, however, stared at Mari. His face was still kind. A smile stretched across his face, and if Mari didn’t know better, she would have believed it actually made the cell brighter.
He stepped forward, wrapping his arms around Mari as best he could. His hands could only reach her shoulder blades, but his head bent, brushing against hers.
Mari remained still. Her mind going blank. Dainan’s voice filled the air. “Magic! Are you ever going to stop surprising me with what you’re capable of?”
She immediately relaxed in his hold. She turned her head slightly. “You’re happy with this news?”
Dainan pulled back. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
Before Mari could admit she had her doubts, Aeary shot to her feet, disregarding her injured leg. “I can’t believe I didn’t see this before!”
Aeary stumbled over to Mari. Dainan lent her his arm to lean on. Aeary’s face has burst into one like Dainan’s, filled with excitement and wonder. “It was always a possibility you had magic. You’re clearly from one of the eastern kingdoms, Sizia, if I had to guess. Or at least your family sometime in the past was Sizian.”
Aeary continued barely pausing for breath, giving Mari no time to process the information about her origins. “That must have something to do with what the Seven are after. They wanted information on the eastern kingdoms and their magic forces, and they’ve chosen a girl who bears the appearance of an easterner, someone more likely to have magic than anyone from our kingdom.”
“But,” Mari interjected, “the Seven didn’t know I had magic. I didn’t even know I had it.”
“Yes.” Aeary nodded. “There are still some pieces missing here, but still there are plenty of people in the eastern kingdom who have magic in their blood, but do not or cannot use it. Maybe they weren’t counting on you being able to use magic, just counting on you having that residual magic. I’m not sure, but the staff you mentioned earlier. I can only guess it is ancient, back from the time we had an abundance of magic users. Those sort of magical weapons helped their users direct their energy and spells in the chaos of battle. They were made with magic, so they would also respond to magic. The demon you mentioned, Apep, must have known that and thought using it would help prove whether or not you have magic.
Helmuth and Regan had recovered and were following the conversation again. Regan asked, “But what does proving she has magic have anything to do with the incident that gave her those burns?”
Aeary turned, raising her hand, “I think I have an idea about that. If the Seven did not pursue the possibility of Mari having magic, then they didn’t think it could get in the way. But, they pursued the idea after the disastrous event, meaning that Mari’s magic is the reason why things went wrong to the Seven. Mari could you tell us again how Balak’s power felt that day?”
Mari nodded, rubbing the pattern on her arms. “It felt wrong, it always does, any of the Seven. That time however, it was more than I could handle.”
“I think, because the Seven have had you for so long you’ve gotten somewhat used to their demonic magic, meaning your body and magic is desensitized to it in certain amounts. Magic is also a manifestation of will, and until recently you had no will of your own, that combined with long term exposure of small doses of their magic, your magic tolerated it despite the fact it would be like lighting matches over a barrel of gunpowder,” Aeary said. Mari’s head was reeling; the reason now one had known about her magic is because she couldn’t use it until she had a will of her own? “So, when Balak funneled all of that power into you, your magic finally rejected it, because of the amount and because your magic was more in tune with your desires. When that happened it was like lighting the gunpowder.”
“What does gunpowder do?” Mari asked, already having an idea she hoped was wrong.
Aeary took Mari’s arm and turned it so the burns could be seen. “That, from what I saw it looked like an explosion went off, which is exactly what gunpowder can do. It’s extremely destructive, an instrument of war.”
“So, why would they put that much magic in her?” Helmuth asked.
“Apep said something about preparing me,” Mari said, looking up from the burns.
Aeary frowned. “I believe the Seven want to cast a spell that requires a massive amount of power.”
“Why? What for?” Dainan asked, glancing at Mari. His eyes traced the burns. Mari tugged her sleeves down.
“More importantly, why our kingdom? Why not Sizia if that’s where they got Mari from?” Regan asked bouncing her son.
Aeary shook her head. “Fear of their magical power? You have to admit our kingdom was not prepared for a threat like this. But, honestly, I don’t know. ”
Mari blinked. She had never expected Aeary to say those words.
“Mari,” Dainan’s voice caught her attention. She turned to him, tilting her head slightly. “We’ve got a start. You having magic is the biggest advantage we’ve got. We’re close to figuring this out.”
Mari nodded, taking a deep breath. “I understand. What can I do?”
* * *
Mari wanted to scream. She pulled book after book off the shelves. She would turn and hold them up to Muraad who would shake his head, indicating she should put it back on the shelf.
Don’t raise suspicion, but listen carefully. Ask questions when you can. Let them teach you how to use your magic. Mari remembered Aeary’s instructions. If your magic can be used to further their plans, then it can stop them. It’s already happened once.
Mari somehow didn’t quite think this was what Aeary meant. Mari couldn’t learn a thing when she couldn’t read the books Muraad was looking at. Mari was resigned to the fact she would never know enough, so that she didn’t feel like an idiot. Mari blamed the Seven, but part of her couldn’t help but hold it against herself as well.
Ever since the day he had found her in the hallway near Dainan’s cell, Muraad also had been unusually quiet and stern with her. She feared he was still upset with her. Mari really didn’t like it, not because she was as invested in him as she used to be, but because she needed his cooperation. A small part of though still wanted his good opinion, no matter how much Mari wished she didn’t.
“Muraad?” Mari let her voice tremble, wiping away all the strength it had gained. You can do this, Mari. Dainan had told her. I believe in you. You always have my support. Mari glanced back to see Muraad stiffen.
She turned her eyes down. She had to act like she used to, no matter how much is made her skin crawl. “Have I… Did I do something wrong? This magic… is that why you’re mad at me?”
Muraad shook his head. “No, of course not. I’m not mad at you. I’m mad at Rekema and Apep.”
Mari’s shock was genuine. While Muraad and Rekema had disagreed in the past, it had always been resolved. Mari had never really heard Muraad voice his disagreements and resentments. He wasn’t the type to dwell on them.
Mari peered through his hair, studying his expression, keeping her own hidden. “Because of the magic?”
Muraad sighed heavily, “Yes, because of the magic.”
“Why?” Mari had to keep him talking. She had to know.
“It’s dangerous.” Muraad rubbed his head. “You remember what happened when Balak’s magic mixed with yours. Bidkar… she really felt it. The way she described it. Really, I can’t believe you’re still alive.”
Mari’s fingers stilled on the shelf. The red burns had continued fading, but refused to go away. It had been awful. It was the worst thing she’d ever experienced… the closest to death she’d ever come.
Muraad continued, “I know why we need to use magic, why we need Balak’s power, but I just… I don’t like it. Too much can go wrong. If you die…”
Mari glanced at Muraad’s expression. He was scowling, and his scales rippled across his skin. He shook his head. “I just don’t think this is the best way. Balak, the idiot, has never cared about your safety.”
“And Rekema?” Mari asked. His words weren’t news to her. Of all the Seven, Mari cared for him the least, and she knew he felt the same.
“She cares, she knows what will happen to us if you die. What we’ll lost, Rekema to us if you die. What we’ll lose, Rekema understands what we’re risking, but the result is worth it to her. She’s calculated the risk, and she’s confident we can still proceed so long as Apep can get your magic to accept Balak’s at the magnitude we need.” Muraad shrugged. “She’s not wrong. I don’t have a good reason to be opposed. If anything, logically we’re minimizing the risk, but still… I can’t shake the idea something will go wrong. Your care had always been my priority.”
Mari wrapped one arm around her. She might not get another chance. “Muraad, what do you mean by that?”
“Well, let me put it this way, I was the one you relied on first. You needed us, you’ve always needed us. I was the first one who could touch you, hold you. Rekema may have named you, but ever since day one you were always my little Mari Annette.” Muraad’s hand came down on her head, tussling her hair.
Before, Mari had always enjoyed his attention, but now Mari had to fight her instinct to rip his arm away from her. She took a deep breath and gathered her courage. “And before you? What was I before you?”
His grip tightened; Mari couldn’t help but whimper in pain. His voice changed, becoming dark and cold. “Nothing. There was nothing for you before us, and there’s nothing after us.”
Mari’s heart stilled. Was it true? Was it a lie? Was it a lie if Muraad believed it was true?
Her head was forced to look up, and his other hand turned her back towards the bookshelf. “Let’s just find the book. I’m sick of being Apep’s errand boy. Maybe if she stopped studying Balak’s injuries for two seconds, she could help you find it.”
Muraad continued to grumble as Mari pulled down books. Mari was surprised he did not comment on her shaking hands. Her mind wasn’t working. It was stuck lookping around his words again and again.
It wasn’t until Muraad caught her arm that Mari was jerked out of her state. He said, “That’s it. Good, let’s head back, pet.”
Mari furrowed her brow, turning the book over. Her finger had just begun to trace the markings when Muraad started to pull her in another direction. “While we’re here, we might as well get the other book. Apep wanted a look for herself.”
Mari almost dropped the book as her feet stumbled and knocked into each other. Dainan and Regan still had to book. They needed it.
“Mari, open the chest.”
What could she do? If she refused, he would realize something was wrong and make her open it anyway. Mari’s fingers trembled as she heaved open the lid. All she could do is play the stupid, innocent girl who couldn’t sustain a thought for longer than a minute.
“Where is it?” Muraad bent over, taking Mari’s hand and using it to dig through the other items. He growled when it became clear the book was truly gone. Muraad’s fingers dug into her as he painfully dragged her to her feet.
“Muraad…?” Mari asked, her voice shook as she clutched the book to her chest.
“Rekema needs to know, but after I found you wandering, I have to make sure you get back to your room safely.”
“Know the book is gone?”
“Not just that,” Muraad said, glancing over his shoulder as he forced Mari down a hallway. “Someone’s betrayed us. I’ll bet anything it was one of those scholars. They must have done something, gotten one of the guards on their side. I don’t know, but if they can get to the library, they can get to you.”
Mari cried out when her head hit the wall as Muraad carelessly dragged her up a flight of stairs. Muraad glanced over his shoulder again as Mari opened the door. Mari waited until Muraad had come in before shutting the door. Muraad snatched her wrist again, pulling her to the dresser, opening a drawer and forcing her fingers around a cold metal object.
Mari only realized it was a key after Muraad forced her to lock the door. “You should be safe for the night, at least until Apep can come. Now do you understand? Under no circumstances are you to leave this room. You stay here, always. You’ll be safe here.”
Mari couldn’t get a word out. Her throat had tightened so much she could hardly breathe. She stumbled back onto the bed.
“You’re scared, I can tell. Don’t be. I’ll be back soon, and if I get my way, I won’t be leaving again.”
Mari wasn’t sure how long she stared at the space where he had been, frozen, horrified.
The key was back in the lock, and she sprinted down the stairs. Maybe Apep would arrive early. Maybe what she was doing was stupid, but she didn’t care. Tonight might be couldn’t let her hear of the Seven take her goodbye away.