Muraad eyed her for a moment before nodding, “Good job.”
Mari was about to stand up when she heard it. Her hand slid as her breath caught in her throat. Had she imagined it?
She paused, straining her ears, and there it was again. She heard the sound of a small faint beat.
Mari continued to show no emotion, but he was alive. That was all she needed. Mari pushed herself to her feet.
Muraad ruffled her hair as they walked to the others. He whispered, “Don’t be upset. It’s all over now.”
Rekema beamed at Mari. “What a show! It’s a shame we only got here for the second act, now, tell me what happened in the first?”
Mari blanched, unable to think of anything to say.
“Isn’t it obvious?” Muraad stepped forward. “I was right. Someone had been planning an attack. The old king must have gotten in contact with Sardes, and they sent this warrior to kill Mari and free the king. Once the king was free, they came after Mari. Mari was able to kill one of them before we arrived. Right, Mari?”
She nodded slowly.
“Fine,” Rekema sighed, “You were right, Muraad. The eastern kingdoms know about us. We need to act now. We can’t wait any longer.”
Bidkar was leaning against Apep. She had one arm over her eyes and the other over Apep’s shoulder. “How are you going to get their final stamp of approval?”
Mari’s teeth dug into her cheek. This was it. They wanted to break the seal.
“I’ll argue all night if I have to, and if they still don’t listen, we’re doing it tomorrow anyway. They can praise me later.” Rekema tossed her hair back. She narrowed her eyes onto Mari. Mari’s heart stuttered, wondering if Rekema could hear her thoughts. “Mari, do you have that symbol memorized?”
Mari nodded, shuddering. “Yes, I do.”
“Good.” Rekema smirked. “Muraad, take the others back to the Underneath. I’ll take care of Mari and be along.”
Muraad opened his mouth, but shut it when Rekema shot him a withering glare. He sighed, “Just make sure no one can get in.”
Make sure no one can get out.
The others were gone. It was just Rekema, Mari, and two bodies. Rekema snapped her fingers, and Mari lurched forward. Her mind began to fog, and she could no longer focus on anything.
Rekema had her breeze through the throne room doors. Rekema used Mari’s voice to call out to the one guard standing there, “Dispose of those bodies.”
The man bowed his head. Was he shaking? Did she know his name? He seemed so familiar. Mari knew him. She knew she did, but his name eluded her.
Mari staggered up the stairs, hearing Rekema hum happily under her breath. Mari’s mind couldn’t really process what she was doing as exhaustion began to set into her. She’d used more magic that day than ever before. Her mind continued to cloud. She wasn’t paying attention to anything.
There were more guards, and she felt the sickening pump of Rekema’s magic, but she had no idea what really happened. All that Mari was really aware of was collapsing onto her bed. She wanted to check on Dainan. She wanted to make sure she hadn’t imagined his heart beat. Every ounce of her was screaming to go, but no matter what, she just couldn’t move.
* * *
Mari ached down to her bones. She tried to hold her stomach as pain roiled, but it hurt too much to touch it. Mari was certain her stomach was burned raw. She couldn’t even stomach the thought of looking at it to see the state it was in.
It took all of her will to stumble out of bed and to the door. It wouldn’t open. Mari blinked. She pulled again, but it wouldn’t move. Mari dropped to her knees.
Right, exactly as Muraad said. No one was getting in, and Mari wasn’t getting out.
She had to see him. She needed to apologize and then yell at him for not listening to her. He couldn’t be gone. She heard his heart beat.
She had to leave, but there was no getting out, at least through that door.
Mari swayed as she slowly made it to the window. She leaned against the glass, watching it fog up with her breath. It was cold. She couldn’t see anything. It was a moonless night. Lightning flashed and thunder rolled. The rain crashed against the window.
The Seven had tried to keep her locked away for too long. She wasn’t about to just take it.
All that they had done. They used her. They had taken her hands and used them to do unspeakable things. They had ruined any kind of life she might have known. Not only had they taken her from her birth family, now they had tried to make her hurt the family she started to build for herself. Dainan. They tried to make her kill Dainan.
With that final thought, Mari was no longer held back by her weak limbs and insignificant pain. There was just one thought on her mind.
Mari pulled her fist back and let all her rage fly into the window. Glass shattered around her hand, digging into her skin, some flying at her face and tearing her with small cuts. Mari had seen too much to be surprised that she had the strength shatter the window.
Rain flew in from the window. Mari shivered, watching the rain dilute the blood dripping down her arm. She carefully pushed the last few pieces of glass out of the way. She leaned out the window, gripping the frame tightly. Her breath caught in her throat and all the fear she had buried came rushing back.
She couldn’t see anything. Wind howled, trying to push her back inside. Mari started to shake. There was a balcony below her. She had seen it countless times. It was there, but she could not help the doubt holding her.
No. She couldn’t get paralyzed. Dainan could be dying. She had to go.
Without giving herself the chance to think twice, Mari was out the window. As the wind wrapped around her, she sucked in a breath and closed her eyes.
She cried out as she slammed into the ground. Pain shot up her back and thudded in her head. Mari tried to roll over, but pain crippled her. She lay on the balcony slumped over. Rain seeped through her dress, soaking her.
Mari groaned, forcing her legs under her. She shivered and wrapped her arms around her as she tried to make it to the door. She fumbled with the door.
Mari leaned against the wall, closing her eyes. She blindly stumbled through the room, pushing a door open. Each step sent another dull pound through her.
She didn’t have to open her eyes once she made it to the staircase that led up to her room. She knew the way to the cell by heart from there. Mari leaned against the wall with one hand and held her stomach carefully with the other. Her feet would wobble, and Mari found herself on her knees several times, but she always stood back up. When she opened her eyes again, she was leaning against the door to the cell.
The door fell open, and she froze. Dainan laid on the floor. Regan sat by his head, holding her sleeping son, and Helmuth knelt by his side. Aeary and Prentiss were on opposite sides of him, keeping watch.
“Dainan,” Mari croaked, dropping to her knees. She crawled forward as Aeary turned to look at her. Mari reached his side. “Is he…”
“He’s alive,” Aeary said. She took Mari’s hand and wrapped it around Dainan’s wrist. Mari felt his life thrum against her fingers. Aeary leaned back. “It was a little touch and go for a bit. His heart rate was dangerously low. He regain consciousness a few hours ago. He’s sleep now, but we’re fairly certain he’ll be okay.”
“I’m sorry,” Mari whispered. She watched his chest rise and fall. She shivered being weighed down by her cold, wet dress. Something shuffled behind her.
Mari looked up as Regan wrapped a blanket around her shoulders. Mari bowed her head and pulled it tight around her.
“What happened? You’re soaked, and you look awful.” Regan asked, adjusting her son and setting a hand on Mari’s shoulder.
Mari looked up. “How much did you tell them, Helmuth?”
“Just what I witnessed firsthand. I stopped the story where you had told me and Dainan to leave,” Helmuth sighed, rubbing his head.
Mari pulled her knees in, still clutching the blanket and Dainan’s wrist. “As you can guess, the Seven arrived. I can’t remember if I’ve said this before, but Bidkar has this ability. She senses pain; physical pain, or pain caused by magic. That was never clear. That’s how the Seven knew to come. I tried to warn Helmuth and Dainan so they could get out. Dainan, as you can see, did not leave.”
The wrist she was holding twitched, and his eyes opened. Mari leaned over him, careful not to touch him, knowing what his wounds were like. He groaned, but did not pull his wrist away.
“Dainan, can you speak?” Regan hurried to his side, handing her son to Prentiss.
He nodded, clearing his throat. “Mari, she—”
“I’m here,” Mari said, moving to hold his hand. She shifted to his head as he tried sitting up.
“Dainan, lay down, you’re still hurt.” Aeary tried to stop him from moving.
Dainan grunted, but continued pushing himself up. Once he sat up and saw Mari, she found herself pulled into another hug. Dainan really enjoyed hugging. Although, that didn’t really surprised her, considering how long he had gone unable to do so. Mari certainly didn’t mind.
“Are you alright?”
Mari pulled her head back. “Why are you asking me that? You almost died.”
Dainan grunted, “Don’t worry about me. Why are you soaked? And are those cuts on your face?
“Wait, Mari are you injured? What happened?” Regan asked, taking a look at the small shallow cuts on Mari’s face. They were hard to see as they blended in with the tattoos.
“I’ll finish the story,” she said. Mari winced when her fingers skimmed across her still throbbing stomach. Her head and back continued to ache from her fall. “Yes, the Seven arrived and saw the body of the man who attacked me. They saw Dainan and thought, well, actually Muraad didn’t. Muraad, he saw Dainan, and I think he figured it out. He knew something was happening, maybe not what, but he told me that if I didn’t kill Dainan, he would tell the others the truth, and he would die anyway.”
Mari buried herself further into her arms and blanket. No one spoke. Dainan’s hand squeezed hers. She took a shuddering breath, “So, I had to make it look real. I attacked Dainan, not with the intention to hurt him, but just to make it look like I was trying. I had to make it seem like I was really killing him. So, I took a spell Apep taught me, but I used it on myself.”
Her hand drifted to her stomach, and she hissed. “What I hadn’t realized was that Bidkar didn’t just sense pain. She specifically feels pain I feel, just on a delay. So, Bidkar noticed I was in pain. Muraad realized what I was doing. My concentration broke, and the next thing I knew, Dainan had taken my hand to himself, and well, that lasted until he passed out.”
His thumb rubbed circles into the back of her hand.
“I couldn’t hear his heart. I thought he was dead until I heard just the faintest beat, but I couldn’t be sure. I was forced to leave.” Mari touched one of the cuts on her face. “They locked me in my room. I couldn’t get out. I broke the window, and I jumped out to the balcony that I knew was below it. I just had to make sure that Dainan was alive, and I had to tell you…”
“Tell us what?” Prentiss asked.
“Tomorrow.” Mari bowed her head. “They’re going to break the seal tomorrow.”
“Then tomorrow we stop them,” Dainan said, forcing himself to sit up straighter.
“You’re both still injured!” Aeary protested. “It wasn’t certain you could even defeat them at full strength, but tomorrow you two don’t stand a chance.”
“We don’t have a choice,” Helmuth said, rubbing his head. “If they break the seal, we’re all dead. There isn’t another chance.”
“I can do it,” Dainan said. He used as much height as he had sitting down to make it seem as though he had never been hurt. “If tomorrow is the day, then we will finish it.”
Mari sighed, slumping slightly. “I want it all to be over.”
“You’re right,” Regan said, taking her son from Prentiss. She held her son tightly. “This madness needs to end. The entire kingdom has suffered enough.”
They laid out the plan once more. Helmuth gave Mari the dagger; it had been left in the throne room. He also gave Dainan the sword of the man who had attacked her. Mari knew their plan forwards and backwards. It was rather simple, but genius. Dainan had enough confidence it for both of them. That was good, as Mari couldn’t shake the feeling something would go horribly wrong. She just couldn’t help but feel like she was missing something really important.
Dainan and Regan talked about what their first steps would be once they had won. Mari was content to hold Regan’s son when he woke up and started chewing on her hair.
She spun him around to face her.
He cooed at her, “Ri! Ri!”
She smiled. “You’ll get there. You’re a smart boy.”
He laughed and kicked his legs. Mari sighed, “Can you make me a promise? It’s more for my sake than yours, little one. Promise me that when you grow up, you will protect others. That what had happened here won’t happen again.”
He gurgled, but Mari hadn’t expected anything else. He was just a baby. In the future, when he could understand, she’d ask him again.
That is, she’d ask him if any of them lived to see such a day.