The door flew against the wall, making an awful, crashing sound. Blood rushed through her head, thumping in her ears. Mari coughed, bending over, leaning on her knees, struggling to breathe. Dainan had caught her by the shoulders, carefully shifting his hands so they didn’t touch her burns.
“Are you alright? What happened?”
She shook her head; she wasn’t alright. She gasped and shoved her hair back, looking up at Dainan. His face blurred in her vision. “Muraad realized the book is gone. He believes the scholars took it.”
Dainan’s face paled to an almost pure white, and Regan froze from where she was holding her sleeping son. Mari wrapped her hand around Dainan’s arm. “Muraad, if he can convince Rekema…”
Mari shook her head, choking on the words. Water welled up in her eyes, and her voice shook. “Then, I won’t be able to see you again, not as myself, and I don’t want you to see any more of the me when I’m with them.”
“Don’t talk like that.” Dainan’s voice broke, and something in Mari did too. “It’s not going to happen.”
“Dainan…” Regan said softly, shaking her head.
Mari pushed away from him, just being close to him made her heart hurt even worse. Something burned in her, like Balak’s power. Anger, what the Seven did to her, took from her… She couldn’t contain it. “You can’t do anything about it! If they stay with me, I can’t be near you! I can’t see you again, or else I’ll be forced to do to you what I did to Regan’s husband. I can’t live with that!”
“Mari, focus on me. You need to calm down. I promised you I would help you stop them.” Dainan stayed where he was, but his gaze struck her, forcing her heart to slow. “Even if you can’t come here anymore, I will still find a way to stop them. I won’t let them take you.”
Mari wanted to believe him, but he didn’t know the Seven like she did. Mari’s knees buckled, and she dropped to the ground. Her shoulders shook; was this how much the world weighed? Chains clattered, and Mari instinctively grabbed Dainan’s hand.
“What can I do for you?”
That was the question, what could he do? There was nothing he could do to fight the Seven. She could barely fight the Seven, not until they had a plan. Mari took a deep breath. That wasn’t what she needed. She didn’t want to think about the next day.
“That story, the one about an old ancestor. Please, continue it. If this is to be my last night with you, the last memory I have of you, I want it to be that.”
“Alright,” Dainan said, gently squeezing her hand, “for you.”
Dainan shifted so they were both comfortable leaning against the wall. Regan sat at the other end of the cell, resting with her son, giving them as much privacy as possible. He held her hand close as he started the story once more. “Where had we left off? I believe our hero had just revealed the truth to the princess in a parting letter. He made sure she wouldn’t find it until long after he was gone. He had been careful, and she didn’t find it until the sun had begun to set. The lady looked all over the castle for him, until finally finding the carefully written letter. She was enraged, and without a word, rushed out of her small castle, stopping only to get her friend the sorceress, to help her find him.
“They took horses, and the lady yelled out his name. She refused to give up on him. It didn’t matter to her that his brother, his army, or even bounty hunters could show up and attack her small kingdom or herself. It wasn’t right. She knew it wasn’t right that he be on his own when she was there for him.
“She caught up to him, due to her friend’s magic. He, of course, was shocked, but also touched. She meant so much to him. She had seen him and reached out to him when no one else would. That’s why he left. He couldn’t bear being the reason she was hurt. He didn’t believe that he meant that much to her.”
Dainan leaned his head back, shutting his eyes. Mari moved closer, leaning into him before she even realized she had. His voice was soft, strained. He was in pain, how many times had Mari’s own voice sounded like that? There was nothing Mari could do because she knew she was feeling the same pain.
“She was able to convince him to return, that whatever his brother did, he couldn’t defeat them. Running would get them nowhere. He conceded, because in all honesty, he didn’t want to part from her. She gave him hope. Hope for the future. She was so relieved. She saw in him someone she never expected to know. He gave her a reason to stand up and do what was right even though it put herself in danger. She was willing to do anything to protect him.”
“Dainan…” Mari’s voice could barely be heard. He opened his eyes and turned towards her. “Did they love each other?”
Dainan smiled, closing his eyes for a moment, before focusing on her again. They shined in the faint light and were filled with water. “Yes, they did, I believe, very much so.”
Mari reached over and wrapped her other hand around his again. Her two small, scarred hands held his one.
She had to go. If she stayed any longer, she didn’t think she could do it. For his safety, she had to.
Mari drew a broken breath, “I don’t want to let go.”
“I don’t want you to.” His grip tightened.
Mari bowed her head. “I don’t want to say goodbye.”
“But I can’t lose you either.”
“You’ll never lose me, I promise.” Was a lie as lie if he believed it was true?
She was out the door, shutting it behind her. She shuddered, leaning against it. She wished she couldn’t hear him, but at the same time his quiet, muffled cries were all she wanted to hear. Hearing something was better than nothing. She tried to quiet her own sobs, but it was no use.
Her bare foot slapped against the ground. The sound cracked through the air, or was that something in her chest?
* * *
Crack. Again, how many times was that awful cracking sound going to rattle through her head? What did it even mean?
“You’re saying it completely wrong. You need to stress the ‘e’ sound that’s why your magic keeps breaking before it can even form something solid.” Apep barked.
Mari frowned from where she sat at the table. Apep hadn’t even told her what the incantation meant. All she had said when she had swept in earlier with Muraad and Rekema following her was that she was only going to teach her this spell if it would shut Muraad up. Mari tried again, narrowing her eyes on the empty glad in front of her. She started the incantation again, speaking slowly.
“—overreacting!” Rekema’s harsh voice caused Mari’s own to falter.
“Overreacting? The book is gone! Someone knew we had gone to the library and searched for the book we found, and they took it. What else could have happened?” Muraad growled.
Mari glanced at the pair in the corner of the room, ignoring Apep’s indignant huffs.
“I’m not saying that didn’t happen, I’m saying that just because someone had the book doesn’t mean they’re going to come after her. No one has tried anything yet why would that change?” Rekema tossed her hair and examined her claws, showing exactly how much she cared about Muraad’s words.
“Maybe they’ve been plotting since the first day. Maybe they’ve only just started putting it into motion.” Muraad stepped closer to her; his scales rippled, darkening his eyes.
“Mari! Your focus should be on the spell.” Apep grabbed by the head and turned it back towards the table. “Now, again.”
Mari focused on the glad, reaching for the strange power that had fueled her the last time she used magic. The words rolled off her tongue, and the power flew to her fingers as if she had been doing it for years. If only she could feel this confident in her abilities always!
A small light flashed, reflecting off the glass. Apep walked back to the other side of the table, eyeing it critically.
“—insist, I will have Apep double check the spell. Vain I may be, but not so much so that I can’t admit my training in the magic arts isn’t as good as Apep’s. Her talent is the reason I chose her after all,” Rekema sighed.
“And me?” Muraad asked, dropping his voice. Mari strained her ears; the same question plaguing her mind. Why did they choose her? Of all the Sizian people, assuredly not a small nation according to Aeary, why her? Surely it was more than chance, so why?
“You know why, I chose you because—”
There was a harsh crack, and Mari hissed as something sharp cut across her cheek. Mari turned to see the shattered glass spread across the table and onto the floor. Mari had the sinking notion it wouldn’t be the last.
Muraad spun around, sending Apep a scathing glare. Apep shrugged. “It’s not my fault her shield was pathetic, of course, I shouldn’t have expected anything more.”
A shield? That’s what she had made? As Mari tried to understand what had just happened, particularly the information she had just missed, Muraad knelt beside her chair. Her first instinct was to move away, but she couldn’t she. His hand came up to her cheek. Mari shut her eyes and turned her head. With a quick pull, the glass was out.
It was barely a whisper, but the pure, raw emotion behind it captured Mari’s ears.
“But now you’ve changed, Muraad. Ambition and desire, gone, but whatever she’s turned you into, I have to trust you’ll come back to me, once this is all over. I need my lieutenant back.”
Mari had never heard such strange words from Rekema. Mari had the thought she just imagined those words. Rekema would never say such things. Yet, the emotion hit Mari almost as hard as any she felt herself; Mari knew she hadn’t imagined that. It being true only opened up more confusion. She? What she was Rekema referring too? How had Muraad changed? Why was Rekema so unhappy with him now?
“We might as well do it now.” Rekema sighed, speaking up. Mari opened her eyes to see Rekema glaring at Apep. “Maybe you could make it a learning experience.”
“Fine,” Apep sniffed, “I can’t imagine she’ll learn much. She’s utterly hopeless, despite that small show of power from before.”
Mari picked up a piece of glass from the table. A shield… she could do that. She didn’t care what Apep said. She didn’t care that the glass was already broken. She could stop it from happening again.
* * *
Mari blinked. Her mind started to clear from Rekema’s haze. They all knelt before her. The crown was on her head, just barely able to stay on. How long ago had it been that Mari had stood there, held up by Rekema with Dainan kneeling behind her?
Ari stared down at the guards before her. They were all on their knees; their faces close to the ground. No one dared to look up. Rekema smirked from her place by Mari’s shoulder. Muraad walked around the room, glaring at the men.
“Let’s perform a little test, shall we?” Apep gripped Mari’s shoulder. Mari froze, seeing Apep’s green markings glow out of the corner of her eye. Apep pushed Mari forward. “Ask them who they serve.”
Mari shut her eyes. Her voice faltered, not loud enough for anyone else to hear, “Who do you serve?”
One head lifted for a moment before ducking back down. Mari only saw his face for a second, but it was enough. It had been Helmuth.
“Louder!” Rekema snapped. Mari’s heart twisted. Had they noticed Helmuth?
Mari raised her voice, so it shot through the room, “Who do you serve?”
Voices muddled together. Some said, “the queen.”
Others said, “Queen Mari Annette.”
Some said nothing at all. Apep frowned and turned to Mari, “Use your magic. Reach out and see if you can feel Rekema’s spell in their minds.”
Mari stifled a sigh and reached for her magic. Once she had a small hold of it, she shut her eyes and started to move forward, following the faint traces of magic she felt. It was hard to pick up. The lingering effects of Rekema’s spell were buried deep in the minds of the guards. The pieces were fragile and felt familiar. Mari remembered it was the same strange residual feeling she had picked up from Helmuth at first. There were some guards who did not even have any of the spell left in their minds, Helmuth being only one of them.
She heard them whisper as she walked around them, occasionally letting her fingers brush their armor as she struggled to pick up on traces of magic.
“Muraad’s suspicions are somewhat correct,” Apep said; she hadn’t moved. Mari stopped, turning to look at her. Apep had been able to know that just from where she stood, while Mari had to stumble around, straining her own abilities, and hunting for it. “The spell has deteriorated quite a lot. But, it’s not a problem. I’ll just redo the spell, and I’ll make it stronger this time.”
Mari risked a glance over her shoulder to see Helmuth clenching his fists on the ground. She wanted to reach out, to let me know she would keep him safe.
Apep glared at Mari. “Pay attention, watch how magic is supposed to be done.”
Mari lifted her head, having no intention of doing as told. She put one arm behind her back, twisting her hand in Helmuth’s direction. Apep’s markings became brighter as she started her incantation. At that moment, Mari started whispering her own. Mari gathered up all the power she could while Apep was too absorbed in herself to notice Mari. The incantation fell out of her mouth, and her release of power sent her stumbling. All she could was hold her breath and hope that her spell would be strong enough against Apep’s.
The pressure in the room picked up, and several of the guards knelt even further into the ground, groaning. Mari almost saw the power whirl around Apep as she finished her spell. With the last syllable, the power burst forth, pulsing through the room. Mari watched it come at her and Helmuth. The wave of power crashed into her, sending her to the ground. Something cracked, and something else clattered, the crown? She could hardly think; the magic was clouding everything. It was so thick; Mari started to choke.
Mari forced her head up against the incredible magical pressure to see Apep reveling in her success. The pressure started to ease, but magic still pulsed and enveloped the room. No, not the room, the guards. Magic radiated from them. All of the guards, their expressions were blank. They were… far too much like herself.
“And that is what magic is, Mari,” Apep laughed before turning to Rekema and Muraad. “There, I’ve solved your problem.”
Mari’s mind was spinning, and someone started to help her up. She caught hold of the crown, watching the guards stumble to their feet as well. They started to move out of the throne room, like they didn’t remember what had just happened, only what was placed in their minds instead.
Horror settled into her heart. They were people, humans. Apep reduced them to mindless pawns with a few words, without a second thought.
The only thing that kept Mari from screaming and tearing herself out of Muraad’s grasp was one small look from one guard that let her know she was not alone. She had succeeded. At least one person was safe from their control, even if it wasn’t her. It’s not as though broken glass can be put back together.