Had the throne room ever been so cold before? Mari shivered as Bidkar forced her to kneel in the center of the room. Apep let go of Balak; he grunted but managed to stay up right. Apep knelt in front of Mari, holding a small block colored white. Apep moved towards Mari’s face. Mari jerked away, causing Bidkar to grab her head and restrain her. Mari couldn’t but twitch and flash her teeth.
“Don’t get all worked up,” Apep huffed. Mari could feel her drag the block across the burn scars still hiding on her face. “It’s just sealing chalk. I’m taking no chances with you, I remember what happened last time I tried it without using the chalk. Your magic and Balak’s won’t stand a chance with a two part seal.”
Mari couldn’t focus on her words. She was too busy straining against Bidkar’s grip. She caught a glimpse of Balak’s face. He was smirking down at her. Mari jerked her head out of Bidkar’s grip, but her legs were knocked out from under her, allowing Apep to trace the burns there.
Mari grunted, wincing at the pain in her head. She started to sit up when Rekema ordered, “Mari, behave!”
Mari huffed and forced herself to be still as Apep finished marking her with the chalk. The second Apep pulled away, Mari pulled her legs up, curling into herself.
“Alright, Bidkar you’re with Balak. I’ll help Apep,” Rekema said. Her voice was no less commanding than with Mari, but there was something in it she never used with Mari. What was the word? Respect?
“Who will hold her down?” Bidkar asked. Mari’s head whipped up sharply. Hold her down? She began to shake. What was about to happen?
“It was going to be Muraad and the twins, but we’ll make do.” Rekema shrugged, lifting her head into the air.
Apep walked behind Mari, grabbing her and sitting her so her legs were crossed. Once adjusted, Apep knelt gripping Mari’s shoulders. Mari stifled the grunt of pain in her throat; Mari hadn’t realized Apep was strong enough to draw blood.
Rekema place her hand on Apep’s shoulder. Balak leaned on Bidkar and set his hand on Mari’s head, like he had that other day so long ago.
“Mari, you have control of your magic now. You can’t let it react like it did last time. Force your magic to accept Balak’s. There is no other choice.” Apep growled in her ear.
Mari swallowed thickly, her hands shook in her lap. “Alright.”
It wasn’t alright, but what choice did she have?
Apep looked past her to Balak and Bidkar. “Whatever she starts doing, it doesn’t matter. Stay focused and keep the flow of magic steady. I’d say not to overload her, but you shouldn’t have that kind of power back yet, and you know better. Now, let’s get started.”
Apep received nods from everyone. Mari took a deep breath, trying to brace herself. She had to do this, but knowing that didn’t make her any less absolutely terrified. Apep started her incantation; Mari winced. A moment later, it all start, so similar to that awful day, yet different.
Balak’s revolting power started to course through her. Mari immediately tried to jerk away from him; her instincts told her to move and to get away. Fire boiled her blood, twisting her veins. Something was wrong. This wasn’t magic. Whatever Balak was pouring in wasn’t right. Something inside her screamed and writhed, trying to push out this evil. His magic was trying to kill her. It was poison.
Mari groaned, twisting against Apep’s strong hold. She pitched forward, retching out her stomach, like other poisons.
It hurt, the fire in her veins. It burned so badly, just like last time. Only this time, all the fire was inside her, burning her, and it was so much worse.
She couldn’t open her eyes. The pressure on her head was too great.
Mari bit her lip, holding back the shriek building in her throat. She wildly clawed at Balak’s arm, but all he did was grunt. A moment later, a jolt of power was sent through her. It was to keep her in line and it did. She pitched forward; a scream ripped from her throat as she curled up in pain.
Somehow, Apep and Balak kept a hold of her. Balak force her head into the ground. Mari kicked out her legs, despite the jarring, stabbing pain shooting through them. She thrashed her arms about, trying to hit the Seven, not caring if she hit herself. All her logic, rationale, and acceptance, and gone out the window. She wanted it to stop, and if that meant hurting herself, so be it. Anything that could possibly stop the pain, she would try.
Mari felt her magic groan, pulling itself out of the depths of her. It was slowly starting to course through her, trying to push Balak’s magic out. That was when everything got worse. Her magic was acting on its own, panicking. It would, by any means necessary, exterminate the foreign, destructive magic that seemed to be killing her. It started ripping it out, and each awful jab felt like her essence was slowly being ripped out of her like ripping off her skin. She started convulsing, shrieking.
Dying, was this what it felt like? Would her own magic end up killing her when it was trying to save her?
“Mari! Control your magic! Don’t let it reject ours!”
Mari cried. Her face stung as tears met the hot burning marks Apep made. She tried to clear her head and just barely caught a hold of her magic. She started to pull it back, but it was like trying to restrain a wild animal.
Mari panted as she strained and pushed her magic down, feeling Balak’s dig into her like claws. It sunk into her, burning a path through her, suffocating her.
Apep’s voice got louder. With each sound, Mari felt the pressure increase. Her blood curdled, bursting. Mari felt like her blood was about to pour out of her, rising to the top. More power was poured into her, and it was more power Apep was going to burst, to break again, and she would unleaded on the castle unprecedented destruction. She would destroy herself.
—all my fears, chief of all, losing you.
Mari remembered the day she had reunited with Dainan. The day he and Regan stayed with her. She knew what she was fighting for, what she was protecting, who she was protecting.
With a surge of energy, Mari forced her magic to take hold of Balak’s. She buried his magic under her own, pushing it so far down, she doubted she would even be able to reach it on her own. Her own magic begrudgingly wrapped itself around the poison, adding another layer on it so it could not break out and sabotage her again.
Mari wasn’t sure exactly when it had ended. Her head was still on the ground, sputtering against the stone. She lifted her head just an inch as she heaved up the contents of her stomach. Tears rolled down her face for more reasons than Mari could count. It took all of Mari’s remaining strength to hold herself off the ground. Her limbs shook as heaved and hacked.
Someone grabbed her by her collar, hauling her to her feet. Mari started to cry out in pain, but nothing left her mouth. Mari grabbed her throat, choking.
No… this only happened in her nightmares! She started to thrash around, pulling away from whoever grabbed her. She poured every ounce of energy she had into trying to scream, but nothing would come out.
“Don’t,” Rekema huffed, pulling her up further, “panic your voice will come back.”
Mari forced her head up, twitching when she saw Balak slumped over, held up only by Bidkar. Apep held her head, kneeling on the floor.
“Idiot,” Apep growled. “He must have put everything in her. He drained himself, but he’ll be fine. We did it.”
Rekema laughed, paying no attention when Mari tried to whimper in pain. “I knew it! All those other generals called me insane! Taking on children, using the uncontrollable mess Balak is. They said if I tried this with my disaster of a team, I would fail. Ha! I did what they were all scared to do! Maybe it almost killed us, but we did it, and now I’ll shove it in their faces! I’ve saved us all!”
“Can I be the one to tell Muraad he was wrong?” Bidkar peeked around Balak, smirking.
Mari didn’t understand them. She couldn’t stand or talk or move, and Balak was no better. Apep was on her knees, and all Rekema and Bidkar cared about was being right?
If Mari hadn’t taken control, they would all be dead.
Rekema said, “Yes, go on and take Apep and Balak back. I’ll shut her away and be along.”
Mari’s eyes shut, but her mind sluggishly turned. Just because her voice was gone didn’t mean she couldn’t hear. Shut her away? Did they always talk about her like that, or was it just when Muraad wasn’t around?
The questions in Mari’s mind faded as it hazed over for the first time in a long time. Rekema had taken control. With a flick of her wrist, Rekema sent Mari stumbling through the doors.
“Your Majesty—” One of the guards outside the room started.
“Have someone clean up the throne room. I want it spotless.”
Mari’s eyes fluttered open. That wasn’t her voice. It was Rekema’s words and Rekema’s voice. But, the guards still heard it. Mari shut her mouth. It had come from her, but it wasn’t her voice. What?
Mari blinked. She knew the guard. He was Hel—H—something.
Mari was up the stairs being pushed into her room.
“Get some rest. Apep or Muraad will be by in a few days. Stay put.”
Rekema let go of Mari and left. Mari fell forward, unable to stop herself. Everything ached. She held her throat it burned. She still could not make a sound. She took short, choked breaths, struggling as her chest pressed in on itself and her throat could not hold any air. Heat poured out from her. Mari almost believed fire had wrapped itself around her, burning her, suffocating her until she finally could not stay awake any more.
* * *
Mari had trouble remembering why she was on the floor when she woke up. Mari rolled on her back, wincing as everything in her body groaned in response. She opened her mouth, breathing deeply. The air burned against her raw throat. Right, her voice was gone. She had no idea how long it would take her voice to recover, if it would at all.
As she lay there, Mari tentatively reached for her chest. She rubbed it where the ache was the worst. Her heart throbbed and heat pulsed out from it. Why did it hurt so much?
Someone knocked at the door. Mari slowly pushed herself off the ground. Everything was so hot. Had her skin always been that warm? Mari tugged the door open, seeing a tray of food left for her. She had to grasp it tightly; her arms shook, rattling the tray. Her arms just weren’t strong enough to hold it steady. The plate and cup rattled, and Mari pushed it onto the table. The cup titled over, spilling water across the table. With a rough sigh, Mari bent over, and she finally saw it.
With silent, choked cry, Mari pushed away from the table, knocking over the chair in an effort to reach the dresser. She pulled herself up to face herself in the mirror, only… it just couldn’t be her. That didn’t look like her.
Her chest tightened; she couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t scream or cry no matter how hard she tried to make any noise at all. All that came out were small pained, sharp breaths that did nothing to ease the burning in her chest. With a shaking hand, Mari reached up and touched the deep red marks etched into her cheeks. She traced the lines that traveled down her face and to her neck. That was where the heat was coming from. She nearly burned her fingers just touching it.
She turned her arms over and examined her legs. The lines were exactly where her burns had been. Deep, burning red had been carved into her, reminding her of a twisted combination of Apep’s markings and Balak’s tattoos.
Mari’s head shot back up, and she moved in close to the mirror. She shook her head slightly, touching the mark on her forehead and the ones under her eyes. She didn’t believe it; she couldn’t it. She tried to speak, and still nothing. Her lips mouth the word no.
No, it wasn’t right. What they had done, none of it was alright. They used her over and over again, not caring what it did to her, never asking for her agreement.
Muraad had known. He knew what they would do, and all he had done was throw some words around before abandoning her to them. How…cowardly, how selfish of him. He couldn’t even watch the awful thing he was allowing to happen. He acted as if his words absolved him from guilt. I’ll bear no responsibility, he had said, yet is he not responsible for his own actions? Do they not speak the truth? Is it not wrong to abandon someone, to turn his back when he knew the evil about to befall her? To do nothing when faced with evil, to passively allow others to suffer because he didn’t want to intervene, that was wrong as well. It was just as wrong as what Rekema and the others had done, because wrong was wrong, no matter what degree it’s painted in.
He never cared about her. It had always been about himself. Muraad was selfish and cruel down to his core.
Muraad didn’t have a single shred of good in him.
Good… Mari still wasn’t sure how to define it. It just made her think of Dainan, Regan, Helmuth, and the scholars. Everything they were. They weren’t perfect, but maybe they were good. She was friend, possibly family to them. She was human to them.
To the Seven, she was just a doll. She was a tool they used when convenient. As much as it hurt, Mari could no longer hold on to any shred of the lie she’d believed. The Seven had never loved her. They had never seen her as anything but a means to an end, yes, even Muraad.
They had taken all she had to give, and now look at where it got her. Now she had to live with the consequences. The mess they had left… Mari couldn’t bear it. They had been everything. The life she could have had, the family she could have loved, the magic she had in her, even her own appearance, her own skin had been taken from her, perverted and destroyed so that Mari could never have it again.
Mari’s nails sunk into her cheeks, for a moment, Mari started to try and rip the tattoos out of her before realizing all it would do was hurt her. She couldn’t tear them off her. They were there; that was a fact.
She grunted, tears welling up, wanting to scream in rage. Blinded by the red of her tattoos, she lunged forward, grabbed the mirror, and threw it towards the ground. The awful, scratching, shattering sound filled the air, louder than any scream she could have made.
Glass flew out, slicing at her feet, but Mari didn’t care. Her chest heaved and with each breath her rage seeped away.
Exhaustion poured back into her. Mari dropped to her knees, and glass crunched beneath her.
The broken shards of mirror revealed the truth. She saw the distorted, broken version of herself. A shell of a girl looked back at her. The mirror showed an ugly doll the Seven painted and threw aside. Water dripped, slowly pooling on the glass under her face.
Of course, she knew she was more than that. Dainan and Regan would never let her forget she was more than what the Seven made of her, but knowing that didn’t make the pain go away. It only seemed to make it worse.
Why couldn’t she have meant more to the Seven? Why were they so cruel? Why did she have to be a useless shell for them?
How could she have ever been anything else to them? Why had it taken her so long to see the truth about the Seven? How had Muraad deceived her for so long? Why did it have to hurt so much?