Mari watched Muraad tense in front of her, keeping his grip locked on her. She couldn’t see his face, but if she knew anything about him, she knew his scales had covered his face. Bidkar did not even blink as he snarled at her. “I don’t know why you’re insisting on doing this now.”
Bidkar huffed, “Muraad, you make it sound like I’m the one hiding information. I’m an open book to you.”
“You think I’m lying about something?” Muraad stepped back, pushing Mari as well. Mari peered around him, watching Bidkar’s face twitch.
“You’re not telling us something,” Bidkar said. “I don’t know why, but I can tell. From the way Rekema’s been acting and how you’ve refused to leave Mari’s side, there’s something more to this than what you’ve said.”
“What makes you think I’d tell you?” Muraad started to nudge Mari towards the door.
Mari could not take her eyes off Bidkar as her eyes narrowed at him. “You’re not telling Rekema. For some reason, whatever this is, you’re keeping it from her, and she knows. She’s content to let it be so long as it stops interfering with the plan. She thinks you’ll regain your sense soon enough.”
Bidkar closed any distance Muraad put between them, saying, “I disagree.”
Muraad reared his head back. “It’s a good thing I didn’t ask.”
Bidkar clenched her teeth. “Stop dancing around the subject, Muraad! Why are you so determined to stick by this brat’s side? You’ve never acted like this before, why now? Why this one?”
Mari couldn’t help but stare at them in confusion. Muraad took a deep breath before biting out, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Bidkar rushed forward, grabbing Muraad by the neck. Mari scrambled away from them, falling to the ground. Neither noticed her as Bidkar’s voice dropped, “Stop lying, not to me. You’re not as good at it as you think you are. I know what you did, all those years ago, when you met Rekema.”
Muraad tried to pull her off. “What—”
“Shut up! The demon you killed, on Rekema’s team. I saw you do it.”
Muraad froze, letting Bidkar throw him around. Mari’s hands clenched. So, demons could be killed, but Muraad?
Bidkar stared at his face, letting go of him. “Did you think it was just happenstance that I was the next demon Rekema brought in? I saw what you did, kinslayer. Of course I told the first ranked officer I found, Rekema. She told me not to worry about it, that it spoke volumes about you. She wanted someone who would make a pile of bodies to boost them to the top.”
She couldn’t wrap her mind around this. Muraad had killed another demon? Muraad who had put her wellbeing first, killing one of his own, for what?
Muraad shrugged his shoulders. “Fine, you know my secret, what about it?”
Bidkar nearly shrieked, “What happened to him? To the demon who killed in cold blood just for his own gain? Now you smother and coddle this fragile girl at the cost at one of our own.”
Mari frowned. What were they talking about?
Bidkar threw her hands about, pushing Muraad. “You’re not thinking! I don’t know what you’re doing! We need Balak, and that means you need to be in the Underneath. You need to start using your head or else you’ll lose it.”
Balak’s recovery was dependent on Muraad’s presence? Or was it dependent on her?
“I am thinking, Bidkar. I’m thinking about what happened last time about what got us in this situation in the first place. If we fail, if something were to happen to Mari, we all know what will happen to me. The risk here is great.” Muraad kept his voice low, but Mari still heard it.
“Don’t tell me you’re backing out on us. We need you,” Bidkar hissed as Muraad started to push her towards the door. Muraad turned away from her, but Bidkar hurried to his side.
“I never said that.” Muraad glared at her while Mari pulled the door open. He continued as they hurried to the stairs. “I’m more committed to Rekema, Mari, and the success of this mission than any of you. I just want to actually succeed. I can’t afford to settle for less.”
“Please, you’re more committed to Mari than the mission, and Rekema knows.” Bidkar called out as Muraad continued to shove Mari up the stairs. Mari fumbled with the door as Bidkar caught up. “You’re willing to condemn the mission for her safety.”
Muraad pushed Mari into the room before spinning around to face the other demon again. He sneered, “Like you wouldn’t condemn Mari for your own safety.”
“What I would do isn’t the point. My actions aren’t endangering our cause. Rekema would sacrifice every single one of us, not just the team, but every single demon, Rekema would end the world with her own claws just to see this through.” Bidkar crossed her arms, scowling.
“Is that supposed to make me feel better? Because telling me that the person closest to me would sacrifice me in a heartbeat just confirms how right I am.” Muraad stepped away from her.
Bidkar groaned following him into the room. Mari’s mouth opened, but she had no words to say, and no wish to interrupt. Bidkar said, “What I’m trying to get to is that it’s not going to come to that. We all know what you’re risking, but we knew going into this it wasn’t without risk. No one forced you stay by Rekema’s side when she got our plan approved.”
Muraad screamed, “But I didn’t know!”
Mari bundled her hands into the fabric on the bed. Had she ever seen Muraad like this before?
Muraad growled, and his entire face was covered in his deep red scales. He buried his head in his hands. “I knew in my head there were risks, but I didn’t really know. I never understood! It had never been me, until Mari, either, so I never cared. Meeko, and Mallory before him, they were different… it was why they were chosen, so when it became me—How could I avoid this? This crushing—”
“You ignore it.” Bidkar’s cold voice stopped him. “You can’t let it interfere. You keep going. You can’t stop feeling it, but you don’t have to let it control you.”
Mari drew in a quick breath. Muraad, was he afraid? But, what could he possibly be afraid of?
Bidkar’s glanced at Mari before dropping her voice, but she had underestimated how well Mari could hear. “Like the rest of us aren’t scared too? As much as I hate you, hated you, you have to get it together. If you can’t control this, no one will win. The fear you feel… just don’t lose sight of the end. We need you and Balak if you want to have a chance.”
Bidkar was gone, and Mari was left with Muraad once more. But that thought brought her no comfort anymore. Finally, Mari realized the figure she thought of as her defender, protector, the one of the Seven she loved as deeply as she could any true family member, was a complete stranger.
She shivered as he turned towards her. He was not the only one there who was far more afraid than they could afford to be. Mari now had more things to be afraid of than she could ever name, especially because she could not put a name to every single fear haunting her. One had a name; she was certain. Even just thinking his name brought her heart to a standstill: Muraad.
* * *
Despite how many of her awful nightmares started this way, Mari continued to stare out of the window at the city. The sun was setting and not many people were out. Mari reminded herself to ask the scholars how the people of the city were still going about their lives, how they could still live somewhat normal lives while she was queen. How did the kingdom survive when no one was truly running the kingdom? She was queen in name only.
She found it easier to ponder those questions and watch the city rather than face Muraad. Her heart ached. Mari thought she had already experienced the worst pain loneliness could bring; she had been wrong. She knew now the pain she felt then was nothing in comparison.
How much worse it was to have been accepted, cared for, maybe loved, and then to have lost it all rather than having never known what she was missing. If she had not known Dainan and Regan she could not have missed what they had given her. What she had once hoped for was to never be alone again, while looking out the window, looking back on who she had been, Mari now knew what she should have hoped for was to not be lonely. They were vastly different things.
She had not been alone in weeks, but she had never felt more suffocating, decimating loneliness before. Muraad sticking to her side was worse than when he had abandoned her. It was because the illusion was shattered. To be surrounded by those she once loved, knowing they held no love for her, it tore at her heart with such ferocity Mari would not know how to describe it even if she was a scholar such as Aeary or Prentiss.
“Mari,” Muraad said. He started playing with her hair. She stifled the urge to push him away and scream at him to go. She sighed and leaned into the window, away from his touch. He did not take the hint.
“I know you heard everything, and I know you’re not as stupid as Apep and the others think you are. Bidkar said far too much, but what was said was said, and I’m not leaving until I make sure you’re alright.”
Mari’s throat tightened, even if she knew where to start, it seemed her voice would not cooperate.
There was a long pause before Muraad huffed, “Fine, we’ll start somewhere else. I noticed you seem to be sleeping a little better. Did your nightmare go away?”
No. Mari resisted the urge to tell him her nightmare had not gone away. It stood behind her, playing with her hair, pestering her.
He moved, trying to get her to face him. The nice thing about the fact Muraad didn’t physically exist for the rest of the world meant that his reflection didn’t appear in the glass.
“No,” Mari settled on saying something else entirely. “My nightmares have changed. I have more control that is why I do not yell out anymore.”
That wasn’t true. She had lost all ability to use her own voice in her nightmares. Even if she wanted to scream, she couldn’t.
“What do you see in them? You’ve never told me. Why haven’t you?” Muraad’s hand rested on her shoulder. She hated the way his scales rubbed across the faded burns on her neck.
“Pain.” Mari stared down. A family was walking down a street. The husband had one arm around his wife; his other hand held a child’s. The woman held a second child with her other arm. Could that have been her, had things gone differently? Could she have been a child with a family? Could that have been Regan, her husband, and her son had Mari never darkened the castle’s doorstep?
She closed her eyes, taking a deep breath as if it would give her courage. “I see people hurting. I see people I have hurt, people I have killed. Tell me, Muraad, do you ever see the same?”
His hand tightened on her, and Mari wondered if what she had done was wise. She could not find it in herself to regret saying it.
“So, you did hear that part.” His voice was cold. Mari fought against every instinct she had to shiver. “I can’t say I see the same. I have killed only those who stood in my way, and even then I am sometimes merciful.”
Merciful? As in, mercy? Hadn’t a woman screamed for it one time? The Seven were not capable of such a thing.
“I feel no regret over those I have eliminated, and neither should you, because they would not hesitate to kill you as well. If I had not killed to get to the top, then I would have fallen to someone who was willing to do so. That is how it is.”
Mari twisted her head back. “Bidkar doesn’t agree. She saw that as wrong, killing your own kind. Why does she not agree with you?”
Muraad backed away from Mari, snorting, “Bidkar doesn’t agree because she puts cause over self. Bidkar believes every demon is needed, and thus the death of one should be avoided at all costs. She thinks that is the only way we will succeed.”
“Do demons often die?” Mari turned to face him.
Muraad shook his head. “No, only when a demon like me comes along, or other extremely rare circumstances.”
“Such as?” Mari prompted, hoping she wasn’t pushing too far.
Muraad narrowed his eyes. “It’s nothing you need to be concerned about. Nothing is going to happen to you, to me, or to any of the others. There’s no need to worry about any of us.”
She wasn’t worried, and she had the sinking feeling Muraad knew that. Her voice shook. “What if I got in your way, Muraad? Would you kill me?”
Muraad straightened up. “You will never get in my way. I would never kill you. Your death could bring me no gain, only suffering. Remember that I am the one on your side, looking out for you. What are in your best interests are in mine. That is why I do what I do.”
Mari didn’t respond. She didn’t understand.
“Mari,” Muraad stepped closer, taking her by the shoulder, “don’t leave this room. Don’t do anything remotely dangerous. Above all else, stay safe, stay alive.”
Alive? Mari knew very little about life, but she knew that state of existence she had been in before she left that cottage in the middle of nowhere was not living. Staying locked away in her tower room was not living.
Mari barely gave him a small nod before he disappeared. She had no intention of staying in her room, but his last request frightened her. Why was her survival always his highest priority? What was he gaining from her life? Bidkar had known, but she hadn’t been able to pull it out of him. What purpose was she fulfilling just by being alive? Why did he need her?
Then, it hit her. Muraad was gone. She was alone. He was gone.
The door cracked against the wall, but Mari did not even glance back to see if it had broken.