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In the End
“Risha, please, what’s wrong?”
Everything. Everything that I am about to do.
Risha did not pause in her purposeful walk, nor did she answer his question. Her silence forced him to follow her all the way to the edge of the deserted village, where she stopped and faced him.
Forcing her eyes to his beautiful, confused face, Risha said, “Alton, I cannot stay with you. I am not meant to stay with you.”
Alton’s eyes registered shock, then more confusion. If only he could understand in an instant, and save her the pain of saying it aloud!
“Why?” he asked. His fingers twitched at his side, then gravitated towards the hilt of his dagger; an instinctive reaction to anxiety.
“Because,” and here she hesitated. Should she tell him why, or leave it at that? Which would hurt him more? Which would hurt her more?
But it was not a question of her. It had never been a question of her.
“You will understand in the end,” Risha said. Her voice cracked shamefully.
As if this could be any more difficult, Alton reached out and took a lock of her charcoal-black hair between finger and thumb.
“Risha,” he murmured in the voice he usually reserved for more pleasurable occasions. She squeezed her eyes shut because she could not bear to see the concern and affection carving lines into his face.
“I have to.” Her voice was a wisp of anguish on the wind that blew her skirt around her ankles. Already, she could feel the storm coming. Time was short.
“You don’t have to do anything! Look at me, please.” Now Alton’s hand was on her face. She looked and found his urgent, blissfully ignorant eyes. “I know what They did to you, Risha, but I promise They will never hurt you again, not if you stay with me and let me protect you. I have extra men at my disposal, bodyguards…”
The fool didn’t know anything! Risha slid her left hand to the small of her back, where the abominable tattoo writhed and waited like an ugly leech. It had become so much a part of her that she could not hide anything from Them, not anymore. Not her location, not her thoughts, not her feelings, and not anything Alton told her. He did not know that she unwillingly betrayed him every second. He did not know, because she was forbidden to tell him. He did not know that she, Risha, would be the end of everything he had worked so hard for.
“No,” she said, interrupting his desperate babbling. “I have no choice. You don’t understand why. If you did, you… you would not stop me.” That knowledge broke the remains of her fragile heart.
Slowly, with greatest care, she reached down and grasped the handle of his dagger.
This is for you, Alton. This is for your kingdom. This is so you never have to suffer because of me again.
But before Risha could draw the steel snake from its hiding hole, Alton’s hand was resting on her wrist, light as a butterfly.
“Don’t,” he whispered. She avoided his eyes and tugged his hand off her wrist; he did not resist. “I won’t hurt you, Risha, but I beg you not to do this. I know it is difficult—”
In one fluid movement, she drew the dagger and held it out in front of her. Both of Alton’s hands flew up to shoulder height in surrender.
“You know nothing of my difficulties,” she said. The trembling in her voice did not bother her anymore, nor would it bother him much longer.
“But I do know, I understand!” Beads of sweat were gathering on his forehead, but he still stared directly at her, almost fearless. “I said that I know what They did to you! I know that They marked you, I know that They are coming for me! I’ve known for a long time; didn’t you realize?”
The determination flew out of her in one exhale, as if someone had punched her in the stomach. He knew? He knew that she was practically one of Them, and yet he was still standing here? Her hand began to shake now, and the dagger with it.
“Please,” he begged, “please, let me stay with you. There has to be another way, another chance.”
If he knew… well, if he knew, then that was just another reason to end it now. Risha had been wrong to hesitate, to put off the inevitable.
“I know you are right, Alton,” she said, while bending her wrist and turning the dagger’s point away from him. “I know there are other paths, and better paths, that can lead to a happier ending.” Just like in the fairytales. “But it is too late now for me to turn back and choose one of those paths. Don’t you see? I only have one choice left, and I’ve already made it.”
His stricken, quiet “No” was almost inaudible as the dagger streaked point-first into her chest.
The resulting explosion of pain was duller than Risha had anticipated. It was nothing compared to Alton’s muffled cries of anguish, and her blurry view of his tortured face. His pain was worse than her own. And ultimately, wasn’t that the reason she had done it?
“You will understand,” she whispered through the encroaching blackness that hid his face. “You will understand… in the end.”
The last thing she heard was Alton’s voice, low and choked with grief. “But this is the end, Risha, and I still don’t understand.”