Chapter 22 - The Aftermath

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I spent the next day in a haze, unable to distinguish dreams from reality. The phantom sensation of Nathaniel's lips lingered on my own, refusing to go away. The memory of him kept playing in my head, coupled with a profound sense of loss.

But I couldn't think about that now. I made my choice, and I'd have to deal with the consequences. But would Nathaniel... No, I couldn't use his name. It belied a closeness we shouldn't have. Would the king respect my wishes? If he cared for me as much as he claimed, he would. He had to, or else what was all of this heartache for?

Melanie came into the dining hall the following day after breakfast, bearing news of the elimination. A sudden dizziness came over me, and I felt as if I would faint. This was it — the king's final decision.

"I'm sure you've all guessed why I'm here," Melanie began. Her eyes scanned the five of us — such a paltry number compared to the hundred we once were.

"One of you will not be continuing on to the next challenge," she said.

Me. It's me. It has to be me, I thought, biting my lip in anticipation. My heart beat fast and a queasy feeling settled in my gut.

Her gaze rested on Sabine, looking pale and wan; then on Lydia, sitting wide eyed on the edge of her seat; then on Faith and Katrina, breaths held and still; before finally landing on me. Her thin lips curved into a sympathetic smile.

"I'm sorry, Miss Crawford. You are eliminated from the competition."

I sank back against the chair, grasping the seat for support. I felt weightless, like I could float away at any moment. He's letting me go.

Heart hammering, I tentatively rose to my feet. My eyes meet Lydia's, whose hand was clasped over her mouth in shock. I smiled at her faintly, then turned back to Melanie and bowed my head.

"His Majesty thanks you for your time," Melanie said. Her tone held none of her usual professional veneer this time. She sounded... earnest. Like she too was sad to see me go. "He and I both wish you the best."

Tears stung the corners of my eyes. I muttered a gurgled "thank you" and left the room in a haste.

Why are you crying, this is what you've always wanted, I reminded myself as I stumbled up to my room. But the hollowness in my chest refused to abate and the tears kept flowing. If I had asked for this, why does it feel like everything is over?

By the time I finally got to my room, I was an utter wreck. Hot tears spilled down my face, and all I wanted to do was collapse on the bed and wallow in the misery. Though when I flopped helplessly onto the bed, I noticed a small white card propped up on my nightstand. I shot to my feet and opened the card. It was from him.

Dear Avery,

I have considered your words carefully and though I disagree with your assertion that the two of us can never be, it would be ungracious of me to disrespect your wishes. Even though it pains me deeply to let you go, I shall do so.

It was an honor to have met you. I wish you the best. I'll never forget you.

- Nate

My hands shook as I held the letter. Tears clouded my vision. When I blinked them away, I found the paper stained, black ink spreading over the white surface.

A knock sounded on my door and I hastily tucked the letter under my sheets. Rising to my feet, I wiped the tears from my eyes with my sleeve and went to open the door to find Lydia standing in the hall. The redhead smiled warmly and drew me into a hug. Somehow, the gesture made my tears flow even harder.

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