You’re never so alone as when you’re in a crowd of people who hate you, except when you’re in a crowd of people who don’t know you exist. And that is the position I found myself in on that fateful day. It was summer, hot and bright, a beautiful blue sky above and throngs of happy people all around me. Their pleasant smiles and cheerful laughter opened an emptiness in my heart.
My loneliness was so intense that I was almost glad when Liana and the others showed up. Almost, but not quite. Loneliness is awful, but pain and humiliation can be worse.
It went exactly as I expected, exactly as it always did whenever I see them now. They used to be… well, we were never friends, but we were all cordial to each other. I guess now they feel they need to make it very clear that they hate me as much or more than anyone else, so they won’t be tarred with the same brush. Not that that excuses them.
They started off making fun of me, then moved on to vicious accusations, and finally started hitting me, knocking me down, kicking me, spitting on me. Tears ran down my face, and I screamed out in pain.
“HEY!” a female voice yelled out, and they stopped, probably more in surprise than anything. “What the hell do you think you’re doing? Leave her be and run off before I call the guards!”
“Like they’d care about that piece of trash,” Liana muttered, but they slunk off.
The woman who’d chased them away helped me to my feet. “Are you alright?” she asked.
I nodded. “It hadn’t gotten too serious yet. Thank you.”
“I’m glad I could help. I’m Crisabella.”
“Ohh,” she said in sudden understanding as the friendliness left her face, and she hurried away.
“I did the right thing!” I called after her, but she didn’t look back, and no one else looked my way.
That’s when you’re the very most alone—when you’re in a crowd of people who don’t know you exist, but if they did, they’d hate you.
It wasn’t always this way. Back when, I was… not famous, but well-known, well-liked. It was an honor to be chosen to go on the quest. I’d have been a hero if I’d succeeded. And I did succeed. Then, I ruined it all by doing the right thing.
Not that I regret it. Not really. Not that part, anyway. I regret finding the damn thing. I regret agreeing to go in the first place—agreeing, I would have killed to go. Sometimes I regret being born. But I don’t regret what I did.
What happens in stories, what’s supposed to happen, is that a hero goes on a quest, succeeds, brings back the fruits of their victories, the kingdom is restored to health and prosperity, and they all live happily ever after. What happened in real life is that I went on the quest, I succeeded in finding the Talisman, I brought it back, and I destroyed it. We got attacked from two sides and the kingdom barely survived the war, the crops failed, the economy collapsed, there’s been political dissent and the crime rate has gone up. It’s all my fault, of course.
I will freely admit that had I delivered the Talisman to the king as I had been expected to, as I had originally intended, none of that would have happened. We would have lived in peace and prosperity, or in prosperity, anyway, for surely if he’d had something that made his kingdom undefeatable, he’d take advantage of it. And it would have taken advantage of him, and of everyone around. It would have sucked up happiness and hope and replaced it with greed and malice. I held it in my palm for only a few moments, but it was enough. I know its nature as surely as I know anything, and it was pure evil.
It wasn’t hard to destroy. I smashed it between two rocks and it shattered into a million pieces. I fed the pieces to a goat. Goats will eat anything. I will note that the goat suffered no ill effects. Evil has no hold over goats.
It’s rather a miracle that I wasn’t executed. I don’t know why I wasn’t. I once heard it said of the king that he was a good king, as kings go, meaning he usually had some kind of reason before torturing people to death. But I’d given him plenty of reason, and never even been arrested. Maybe he figured a lynch mob would’ve done his job for him by this point.
But the most recent attempt at vigilante justice hadn’t done me any serious harm, thanks to my regretful rescuer, so I went home, moped around for a while, and eventually went to bed. I fell asleep crying, “I did the right thing,” over and over into my pillow.
I was awakened by a pounding on my door. I shot up in terror. Was it Liana and her gang, come to finish what they’d started? Or the king’s men, with a warrant for my execution? Did it much matter?’
I decided it was better to get it over with, whatever it was, so I went to open the door.
It was no one I had expected, no one I knew. A tall woman in a dark green cloak was standing at my door. “I’m quite sorry for the noise,” she said when I opened it. “You didn’t wake up when I first knocked, and it would have been rude of me to come in uninvited.”
“I keep my door locked, anyway.” I was still to half-asleep to make intelligent conversation.
“There’s that too,” she said with a smile that made me think the only reason she hadn’t come inside, locked door or no, was politeness.
“Anyway, you managed to wake me, you might as well come inside.” I belatedly realized how rude I sounded- I had been jolted from my sleep in the middle of the night. “Would you like some tea?” I offered as I locked the door behind us.
“If you’re having some. You could use it, if you don’t mind me saying so.”
I nodded. As I began brewing the tea, I explained, “I thought you had to be either guards with a warrant for my arrest or a mob with torches and pitchforks.”
“I’m very sorry.” I could tell she meant it. “My name is Malexandra. Do you know of me?”
I did, everyone did. Lady Malexandra was some kind of sorceress, and had a sort of school or something just outside of the city. Her politics were anarchistic, but the king mostly left her alone, as had his father and grandfather before him—it was debated whether she was immortal, I remembered, as the woman standing before me didn’t look more than thirty-five. She was, now that I think of it, the one who’d made the comment about the king not torturing people to death without a reason.
“Yes. And you know who I am, I assume?”
“Of course. I don’t wake complete strangers in the middle of the night for no reason.”
I waited until the tea was done, and we were each sitting on my sofa with a mug of it, before asking, “So why are you here?”
She took a sip of tea before answering. “I’m afraid I have some bad news for you. I came across the information that the king has ordered your arrest for treason.”
I shouldn’t have been shocked, and guess I wasn’t, but there’s a difference between worrying that you’ll be killed and knowing that you’re to be tortured to death, and her words hit me harder than the fists of the morning’s attackers. “When?” I managed to ask.
She looked at me sympathetically, but her voice was matter-of-fact. “Perhaps an hour ago. You should have a few more hours before they come for you.”
“I have a few hours before I’m arrested, and we’re sitting here drinking tea?” I asked, but my voice held no emotion, and I found I really didn’t care. It all seemed so far away, the king’s guards and Malexandra and my hand holding the mug of tea.
“Aniya,” Malexandra’s voice was stern. “Listen to me. I understand this is very difficult, but you can’t go into shock right now.”
“Why not? I haven’t anything better to do for the remainder of my life.” But I knew she was right, and took a sip of tea and tried to force my mind back into place.
“Nonsense, you need to go pack whatever’s important to you.”
“I don’t have anywhere to go.”
She gave me a look that said to stop being stupid. “You’re coming back with me.”
“I am?” For nearly a year, nobody would speak a civil word to me, and now I was being offered a place to stay. “Why are you recuing me?”
“Because you need it, for one thing, and I dislike executions.” As I got up to pack my things, she added, “And because you did the right thing, destroying the Talisman. Someone as brave as that should get at least a few breaks.”
I spun to look at her. “So you don’t hate me for it?”
“Gods no. Could you imagine the king, or anyone, with that much power?”
“Right. Well, you’ll fit right in at my place.”
And I did.