Chapter 32: The Last Chapter
In the madness that followed—the guards rushing in and out, the doctor being summoned—Isa slipped away. This moment, avenging her slain family, should have brought with it comfort. Brightness that she could feel on the inside. Assurance that her father was content with what she had done. Some type of acceptance. Love from beyond the grave.
But she moved in a strange fog—almost floating as she went—her heart having darkened to a shade of night.
She had done it to spare scores of thousands a doomed future. Wasn't that a worthy cause? So why did she feel so heavy from it?
As she left the passage and stepped into the bright light of the Eastern Wing, she choked with emotion. How had things come to this? Her soul felt as if it had cracked in two. The half, the caring self, lay bleeding out. It hung heavy, like a weight formed to the shape of her foul heart. She tainted him—sickly and shaking, gasping and pale—and then she left him. Sweat on his brow, his eyes wide.
She would go to hell for this.
"Not this way," he rasped out, clutching her dress when she came to him in a moment of regret.
Gritting her teeth, she staggered to Aro's door, knocking wildly. What followed was a strange slow swim of events. Her asking for an audience with Aro though it was late in the night. They refused, she argued. Isa raised such a noise that Aro himself opened his door. She stepped inside, eyes unfocused.
"My Isa," Aro said once the door was shut while her ears still rang with the King's rasping voice. "Returned to me so soon?"
Aro held his hand out for her but his light mood poked at her like needles. She walked past.
"You were right not to trust him." Her words clanged in the air.
"Truths hurt, hmm?"
She narrowed her eyes. "Deeply."
"Come here then, have some wine."
The thought culled a hollow from her chest. The King had trusted her enough to drink.
"I came to inform you that the Pillary Proposal, the marriage to Lady Tanya, was in effort to gain access to saltpeter."
Aro, in a strange show, brought his hands together to clap.
"You have saved the future of a nation," he added with his voice light. "And yet you don't seem the least bit pleased. A humble heart, that is very... endearing."
He came to her, gently wrapping one arm around her shoulders. His body hot and shocking against hers. She wanted to step away. Was that who she was? Humble?
Hardly. The words 'callous quim' seemed more fitting.
"I only did it to save both countries a war," she explained.
He laughed, exuberant. "Oh." He grinned wickedly. "What terrible deed have you done that brings tears to your eyes?"
He led her to a table nearby, pulling out a chair which she refused. The sleek gloss on the surface brought back once-pleasant memories that she'd rather forget. He took a seat instead.
"Has your golden pen found its mark?" He couldn't be more excited by this news.
Isa glared at him for making so light of the tragedy in it all.
He held his hands up, surrendering to her anger. "Whatever you need to feel in order to assure yourself it was the right thing to do."
Floating, feeling like a fall leaf, she stared at the scar above his eye.
Aro held out his hand for Isa. She didn't take it. Slowly, with careful restraint, he reached forward and took up her hand, bringing his mouth to her knuckles. Isa didn't resist. No one was around to object.
No one but Isa, a part of her still connected to the King, that part wouldn't be silenced. Did she imagine it would be so easy? So simple? If she and Aro tried to flee they wouldn't make it through the front gate, let alone the northern border days away.
He stroked his thumb over her knuckles. "You're not the first to take to such measures to bring an end to tyranny. There have been plans afoot for many a year. Before Edward took to the throne. I knew his father, you see? We had both faced each other for the first time after the last battle was fought, and won." He let go of her hand, leaning back in his chair.
"A soldier caught up behind our line after the end came. Caught me by the scruff and gave me this—" he motioned to the scar over his right eye. "Blood in my eyes, I chased after him but caught no one."
Absently, his hand fell to the table and he traced the fine grain lines with his fingertips.
"Sometimes fighting an enemy, even if you win, leaves scars."
Inside, Isa began to wilt. What was happening across the way with Edward? Was it too late for her to find the cure?
"Masen is a vicious enemy," Lord Aro continued. "They've taken over and divided Denali clean in two. They intended on doing the same with Dwyer. They would have, if it weren't for the untimely death of King Brisbane." He smirked at that.
Isa looked to the door, wondering why it hadn't opened yet with guards charging through to take her.
"Over the new days you are to lay quiet."
Hastily, she wiped away tears. He took up her hand and kissed away the salty wetness.
But ghastly thoughts of Edward—face strained and body shaking—kept her from feeling any comfort. When she stood, her feet felt like iron weights: heavy and solid, difficult to lift. But she forced herself to move, to pace, fearing that if she stood still for too long the ground would swallow her up.
"What then? After we're there?" she asked, steeling herself against the urge to run from the room.
"Denali will then proceed with our efforts."
"Your efforts?" She paused next to a piece of heavy oak luggage boasting slots and pockets, open like a cabinet. Something glinted inside.
He studied her closely. The air around them crackling to life again. "Tell me, did you stay to see his breath leave him?"
All Gold for the Holiest of Crowns. But she hadn't given all.
She didn't answer. She didn't have to.
He clucked his tongue in chastisement. "That won't work at all."
His brashness took her aback.
"I didn't do it to satisfy you," she stated. "He wouldn't have let me come. I had to warn you somehow."
"Consider me warned." Aro's throat pulsed as he clenched his teeth. "Now an enraged King will be stalking the halls for you."
Aro ventured away to drink his wine, taking slow, steady sips.
With Edward, Isa's constant time spent in his presence, she could sense more or less what he was mulling over. Not with Aro. He was a solid wall. An enigma. Isa felt blind near him.
"I know." He swept his arm through the air. "For Denali and all the little children."
His snide comment sent her into a tailspin. That was the right reason, wasn't it? Yet Lord Aro's remarks, full of bitterness and condescension, made her question her actions. Being forced to judge herself, her decision, made her bristle.
"And I've uncovered his true intentions, have I not?"
"When you leave, preferably at first light, you will take me with you."
"Why in the morning and not now?" One eyebrow lifted.
Angel. "I have someone here I need to see before I go."
"And us? Do I have your company?" He emphasized the last word, heavy with suggestion, his eyes dropping from her face.
"Our arrangement was for you to give me solace in Denali," she explained, "in exchange for freeing Essica. Yet the King tells me Essica is in Telnit."
Aro stood tall, arms crossed, the velvet along his shoulders crinkling, but he said nothing in response to his lie being exposed. All Isa felt was a bit of relief. Whatever was to happen with her next would not bode ill for Essica. She was out of harm's way.
"I'm needing strength, Isa. Strength in numbers. I have vested most of my life attempting to squelch the threat of Masen. Ruses, ploys.
"I've attempted to string a line of twisted tales so vast Masen could no longer tell who was friend and who was foe."
Her father's voice came to her, loud, the canter of the words to the beat of her heart, Keep your friends close, your enemies closer.
It was a surprise to hear her father now giving her guidance and courage which she hadn't known she was in need of.
"So tell me," she said quietly. "What ruse are you spinning now?"
He grinned wide. "A successful game of Hidden Gems, Stolen Treasures."
"Ah." She smiled, leaning against the now closed travel case. She had learned of this childhood game. One child would take precious items, declare one the gem, and hide them. Others were to steal or protect.
"In your game, which am I? The gem or a thief?"
He lifted the glass to his mouth to drink again, now a sight that made Isa's stomach twist painfully in its unrelenting knot.
"It worked out beautifully." Leaning back, sitting lightly on the table, Lord Aro leveled his gaze at her. "Until today, I myself could not tell which side you played for. His or mine."
"It seems that nothing's changed," she added only for herself to hear.
He ran his finger over his lower lip, eyes still focused on her. "Your plan was incredibly clever. For a while you even fooled me."
"Oh?" she said, intrigued to hear more, sensing a shift, a coming truth.
"Oh yes. Bringing an end to the threat which Queen Dora represented was relatively simple. No one was suspicious then, her efforts were kept silent even to the grave."
While he continued to speak, "Brisbane was much more challenging," Isa's eyes went wide and she clenched her teeth, her hands balled into fists.
That was quite the revelation: he was the one responsible for the death of Edward's mother, the Queen.
This man she had now given herself to—the man she thought was on her side—had been against her from before the start. It was all a greater plot. Aro against Dwyer. Aro against Denali. Aro against Masen. Her head throbbed with this realization and her vision blurred with the perverse rage that began to boil inside as the full depth of his reach came to the surface.
All this time she had hated the wrong man. Everyone now seemed strangely innocent, no one at fault, not even Edward's father, King Brisbane. Aro's twisted and estranged intentions overshadowed all else. He was the reason her family had been ended.
Ten gold should have gone to Aro. The knife slitting apart his belly before finding a home in his heart.
His voice droned on, but all that Isa could hear was the buzz between her ears. Her body thrummed with a vicious humming, the same salacious intent that had her striking out at Edward.
But she had hated the wrong man.
The wrong man had borne the burden of Aro's actions against both Dwyer and Masen. Everyone playing the pawn. Even King Brisbane was caught up in Aro's trap.
How had she not seen it? How had everyone not known!
". . . driven to act. But Edward? All I had to do was let you take the reins." He lifted his empty glass as if to salute. "To Isa. Who accomplished what a host of infiltrators could not. Desire and lust wielded as weapons."
He tipped his head to her, finding some sense of honor in orchestrating such a thing.
Desire and lust wielded as weapons. Weapons . . . curses, the King had taken hers.
Oblivious to what built inside her, Aro turned away. "You should drink with me, my Isa. To a new life."
It should be him crying out for mercy at the end of an executioner's taut rope. Where were the guards? Just how far did Aro's reach go?
And here he stood, talking aimlessly, bestowing his own praises.
With his back to her—one hand held up a glass, the other gripped the body of the flask, tipping it to pour—he was sheathed in ignorance. It was almost a pity.
Isa's heart pushed wildly, stirring every fiber of her being into absolute awareness. This was her moment. Fifteen months had now come and gone and this is how it all would end—nobly, with dignity and resolution, not racing away in the cold of morning through the trees.
Panic and anxiety did not cause her to shake.
Aro rambled on with his meaningless words. Sweat brought on by the heat of wine caused the white plumes of his sleeves to cling to his skin. He wore a soft fabric that caught the light.
Grinning, eyes bright, unawares, he turned with glasses raised. Isa's eyes burned fierce for a brief moment before she forced serenity to return.
"For you, my dear."
He held the amber wine out for her. It seemed to shine as if lit from within, but it was only a reflection of the firelight striking deep and shattering into beams of orange-yellow brilliance.
Eyes on Aro, Isa came close, mere inches away. Desire and lust a mighty weapon.
"Thank you," she said, the words flowing freely from her tongue. "For being so forthcoming with me. I've been in the dark all this time."
He nodded, almost with a reverent bow. "I knew you would understand the necessity of it."
Eye to eye with her true enemy, she lifted one hand to take the wine, wrapping her fingers around his which held fast the stem. Traitor eyes. A traitor heart.
Isa hesitated for a moment—taking in a cleansing breath and asking for Abdon's blessing, for his steady hand—and then thrust her other hand upward, inward, swiftly piercing Aro's flesh between a narrow of ribs, driving his own blade quick in to the expanse of his lungs.
Aro's eyes sprang open wide and a shocked gurgle escaped his throat. His body lurched and buckled, driving himself further onto the sharp edge. She clenched his hand tightly, a slosh of wine spilled over the rim, wetting her clothes.
Pain contorted his face as he wheezed and choked on his breath. The other glass, in an effort to crash it against the table, fell from his hand. Shards pricked the tops of Isa's feet. Her arms, once too weak to lift a broadsword to spare her life, were now strong enough to keep her foe near as she plunged the blade deeper. Each of his desperate and pleading movements surged through the blade and throughout her arm. She felt it, every shudder and jolt, in her muscles, in her breath, to her very core. The feeling of the end. The absolute.
Eyes fixed on his, she stepped forward, pinning him between the edge of the table and her small frame. Body shuddering, arms quaking, Aro clawed upward, reaching for her neck, squeezing, squeezing. Isa's vision dimmed, her head throbbed. Aro's hand shook against the tender skin of her neck, losing strength. He struggled to bring his other hand to her throat but she still held firm to it. Their hands clasped tightly around the stem of the glass, the contents having spilled out. His chest heaved wildly, drawing against nothing.
Caught in the last throes of his life, they sagged and dropped to the floor. Legs tangled, arms locked tight. Aro's efforts to end her and free himself, seek out his own retribution, only made his heart beat faster, hastening the flow of blood from the wound. He fought for words, but only a moist warble escaped.
Heat flowed slick over her hands, taking with it Aro's fight. His veins jumped under his skin as his heart beat erratically, attempting to force the last of his blood through his body, only quickening the end.
Open mouthed, he gasped and struggled for breath. His skin paled. His eyes widened.
Collapsing against her, Aro struggled to speak again, but the breath had already seized in his lungs.
"You're the Tyrant." To her, these words were a soothing ointment, her own deliverance. The sense that this was the moment she had been moving toward grew strong.
The blade through his lungs having robbed him of breath, no sound other than a drowning gurgle came. Red flowed down his chin, dripping to her bodice. Heat everywhere. The scent of iron, salt and sweat.
His hands on her neck finally slacked, and with a shudder, his body fell heavy and strangely limp.
The echo of his struggle faded. The air stood still.
Isa let him go then, slowly lowering him to the floor with great care. She studied him—the man who was at fault for all the hardship and struggle of so many, the man whose blood was so tainted it ran nearly black—and she felt only a sense of finality. An end to misery.
Whatever happened next mattered little. For this, her father and brothers could rest well. Mother could be comforted. One day, hopefully soon, Isa would join them in the afterlife.
A strange sensation took hold, one foreign and odd. Isa's anger, which she had clung to for so long, had fled with his last breath. None of it was left to fill her now.
Isa shoved against him—still warm with the last measures of life—until he slid from her legs. She pushed up to her hands and knees. After her breath steadied, she stood, stepping back, stumbling over the length of her own dress which was now soiled and slick, cooling against her skin. Hastily, she stripped away the soiled garment—a brilliant cream now streaked with darkened blood—like stripping away the faded threads of an old life.
Eyes wide, mouth open. He lay there, still, unmoving. His soul gone.
After an untold length of time passed Isa turned away from his body. She let her head fall back, trying to collect her senses, waiting for the earth underneath her feet to still.
When she opened her eyes an emotion erupted inside her so fiercely it took her breath away. There in the doorway stood the King, her King. A hand firm on his stomach, the other on the hilt of his unsheathed sword. Edward. His body quivered. The strain of standing evident in the set of his cheeks. His skin, hair, and clothes drenched with sweat.
He never looked more beautiful, more alive. Astonishing. Radiant.
She ran, stumbling with every step, crying loud with apologies as she wrapped her arms around him. He pressed his face to her hair, breathing in deep.
Leaning back, smiling through her tears, Isa looked him over. "But how?" she asked in disbelief. Even after the foul act she had committed he stood here, loving her.
"Your boogie box."
Sue! Bless her!
Isa chuckled at his snide joke, his humor a relief. "Is it unforgivable?"
He shook his head and kissed her forehead. "Shouldn't I be asking you that?"
Isa laughed through her tears and wrapped her arms about him, enjoying the feel of his body against hers, familiar and new at the same time. His blade, unneeded, fell to the floor. He embraced her tightly, cool leather and heated skin on the smooth bare of her back.
Edward lifted her face to his. Meeting his eyes without anger caused no pain to grow at her temples, no vileness to seep through her blood.
"I've loved you so much, Edward. I've hated myself for it."
"You know I've always loved you." His eyes brimmed over and he laughed, his breath smelling of tart wine, the air swelling and pulsing lively with the sound. "A truce?"
She shook her head, grinning with pure delight. "No Pillary. No Tanya."
"Agreed." His warm, gray eyes searched hers, stirring nothing inside Isa but sweet adoration. "But I'm still in need of a wife."
A fresh flood of tears met her eyes and she kissed him with wild, brilliant passion, her hands caught up in the length of his hair. As they lost themselves in each other Isa was filled with an emotion that was far stronger than happiness and more potent than love.
The End . . . Perhaps
You didn't think I'd honestly kill Edward, did you! Aro simply had to go.
Thank you for reading! I know this story often feels like a tangled mess and a wild ride. I appreciate your curiosity and patience.