“Yes, I did,” said the man. “She told me how to operate this palace from the shadows, and I killed her at her request, and then I killed Kagami, before she could go back to her farm and tell the others that their beloved king had been a human woman all along. That was how I saved the world. I took the old woman’s place behind the curtain. They all believe the Queen’s splendor is too glorious for any of her subjects to behold, and they’re happy to obey a voice without a face when it tells them to do things they already believe to be correct.”
Regan blinked, disbelieving. “How did murder save the world?”
“They believe humans are heroes. They believe they’re ruled by one of their own kind. Their world is built on those beliefs. They couldn’t survive learning they were wrong. It would destroy their entire system of governance, such as it is. So I did as she asked, and I freed her from their expectations. Then I put Kagami down like the animal she was, and sat back to wait for my door to return.” His expression darkened. “It didn’t. It left me here, alone, apart from my own people, to grow old and fade away in a world full of beasts, yoked to a throne I couldn’t abandon without revealing what I’d done and destroying the illusion. At first I kept my place because I wanted to keep my word to the woman I had killed, and then I did it because being old and alone in a world of beasts was so much worse than being their queen. So I stopped waiting for the door and started waiting for you, and now here you are, my salvation.”
“I’m not here to save you.” Regan took a step backward. “You tried to have me kidnapped. You hurt my family.”
“You mean the centaurs you’ve been living with? They’re animals, beasts. They don’t feel the way we do. They don’t love the way we do.” He scoffed. “Nothing I did to them had to happen. It was your fault, for not coming to me when you were first called into this world. If you’d been a better hero, none of this suffering would have taken place.”
“And what was I supposed to do when I got here, kill you? I was a child. I still am.” Regan shook her head in disgust. “I’m not killing anyone. I don’t want to be a hero. I was willing to save the Hooflands from a wicked queen if there was no one else to do the job, but I’m not willing to kill a man, not even a bad man. Destiny doesn’t exist. You got it wrong. Everyone here got it wrong.”
“You’re a child, and I’m not!” he yelled, with all the fury his wasted body could contain. He sat up partially in the bed, then fell back into the pillows, panting. “I was so young. I had my whole future waiting for me. I had my beautiful Elise waiting for me. And I spent my entire life here, in a place I didn’t belong, all for the sake of a bunch of animals and some stories they made up about how the world works. Now I’m asking a stranger to kill me and take my place, because that’s what humans do in the Hooflands!”
“What happened to the others?” Regan’s question was abrupt.
The man looked away, refusing to meet her eyes. “What others?”
“The ones who wanted the throne.”
“Dead,” he said. “Bones at the bottom of the castle’s foundations. They walked to their dooms willingly, with thoughts of power and privilege clouding their minds. Don’t mourn for them. They died generations ago.”
“I thought you’d say that,” said Regan, and cocked an arrow, and fired.
She had been in the woods for five years, hunting to fill her own belly and the bellies of her family. Her arrow flew straight and true, embedding itself in the headboard of the bed where the old man lay. He turned to look at it, mouth hanging slack and surprised.
“You missed,” he said.
“I didn’t,” she replied, and turned her back on him, preparing to walk away.
“Wait!” he yelled. “You can’t leave me here!”
“You’ll die soon enough, from the looks of you,” she said. “I apprenticed to a healer. There’s blood on your hands. Your lungs are killing you, and I don’t feel the need to make it any easier.”
“But whoever comes to find you will find me, and they’ll know about the lie! They’ll know Kagami was never queen, and they’ll know you’re not a hero.”
“Good. Let them learn that destiny’s a lie, and let them find the way to govern themselves, as they should have done from the beginning. Let them learn humans are people, the way you never learned that they were,” said Regan, and turned on her heel and walked away from the old man—away from the old monster—without a backward glance. She didn’t feel like a hero. She didn’t feel like much of anything beyond an exhausted teenager. She still felt like she was saving the world.
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