It was dawn when they finally got home after the ball, and neither of them spoke. Amelia went to the bedroom and locked Renato out. He understood. How could she share a bed with him after what he did?
He wanted to check on their son who was probably asleep, but then remembered he was still covered in blood. What if poor boy wakes up and sees him like this? No… he had to wash it off. He hurried to the bathroom, turned on the lights and threw off his jacket. There were bloodstains on his shirt and even on his face, but that was from one of the guests hitting him and her ring cutting him on the cheekbone. If Gustavo didn't stop them, they would have killed him right there.
Renato sighed and took off his shirt. He'd burn it later. He watched as the water turned red when he started washing his hand and his face and he had the grab the basin for support. Do you really think you can ever wash it off?
He tried to ignore that voice. No. He will think about tonight later. He finished washing, gathered up his ruined suit and shirt and left to get rid of them and change.
After he got into clean clothes, he threw everything in the fireplace, including his mask. It didn't burn easily and he had to open a window because there was too much smoke. Any moment, Amelia is going to come and ask what the hell I am doing. But she stayed behind closed doors. He could hear her sobbing.
Finally, there was nothing left but ashes.
The funeral was even worse than the days before. Renato could no longer hide from the world, he had to face people who hated him, and they had every right to.
He hadn't slept since that fateful night, and spent nights in the living room. Amelia barely spoke to him. Even their young son knew something was wrong with them.
The last thing either of them wanted was to face the crowd. Renato just hoped he could hold out until the funeral was over, but he was exhausted and close to his breaking point.
He led Amelia, who looked beautiful in her mourning dress, through the snow to the king's tomb. It was built when Gustavo was still alive; he used to make fun of it. Too fancy and too tacky. How am I supposed to rest here? Have you seen that terrible statue of me? Promise me never to bring irises, I hate them. Why aren't you laughing, old friend? Renato could almost hear his voice, and he remembered his smile.
People were gathering around them, and he caught sight of Oscar. The little page looked years older in black, and his eyes were already red. Renato wanted to say something, but he couldn't find words.
All these days, he had no one to talk to. He did not know what to say to Amelia. Horn and Ribbing tried to visit him but he refused to see them. Even in this crowd, he was alone. The one person who would have listened and who would have understood was dead. Dead by my hand.
The ceremony started, and it was as long and pompous as expected. A king could not have a quiet funeral. Renato kept it together until the royal guard lifted the coffin to carry it inside the tomb. In that moment he sank to the ground and broke down crying, no longer caring what people would think. My king, my friend… how could I do this? I loved you more than anything, save for Amelia, and I destroyed you. How could I doubt your honour? How could I doubt hers? I didn't even give you a chance to explain before I struck you down… and you still pardoned me, you still could not hate me even as you lay dying.
He felt arms around him, and he looked up. Amelia was holding him. He embraced her and hid his face in her soft fur collar. For the rest of the ceremony, they stayed like that.
"Come" she said softly when the crowd started to leave. "Let us go home."
"I was supposed to protect him" Renato whispered. "What madness had seized me? Why wouldn't I listen to you?"
"No use thinking about that now" she said, leading him toward the gate.
Horn and Ribbing were walking right before them, and neither of them looked particularly sad.
"Oh, it's you!" Horn said when he noticed Renato. He stepped closer and quietly added: "Aren't we all lucky to have been pardoned? I never expected to get away with-"
Renato punched him so hard he fell. "How dare you!"
Ribbing tried to help up his friend. "There's no need to be so touchy! We could have easily lost our heads!"
Amelia could barely hold Renato back.
"They are not worth it…"
"You really think I wanted this?" Renato shouted. "I loved him! I was a damn fool to ever join you, you spineless, cowardly bastards! Get out of my sight!"
They knew better than to make him angry by now. They disappeared, muttering about him "overreacting everything".
Amelia practically dragged him the rest of the way home. "I know they deserved it, but please, calm down."
He fell back into the melancholy state he was in for days and didn't say anything, not even when they got home.
He was too tired to get out of his fine black suit, he had no appetite when Amelia called him to dinner and ended up just absent-mindedly sipping his tea and not touching anything.
"Renato, you need to rest. It's been three days."
"I can't. Even awake, all I see is him…"
"He forgave you…"
Renato looked up at her. "I didn't deserve it…"
Amelia sighed and took his hand. "He loved us both."
"I ruined everything… Amelia, I love you so much, and I'm not worthy of forgiveness…"
"Time will heal us." She teared up. "Our life will never be the same, but he would want us to try and pick up the pieces."
Renato just felt empty. How could he go on, pretend everything was fine when nothing was, and keep up appearances? How could he expect Amelia to spend the rest of her life with someone who killed her love and threatened to kill her? She deserved better.
Even after dinner, watching Amelia play with their son, he felt like he could not join. The poor boy didn't know his father was a murderer, he was too young to know what that even meant. But one day he would know, and he would resent him.
Renato went to the bathroom to cool down. He had a bad headache from being awake for so long. Cold water at least gave him the illusion of refreshment. He looked in the mirror and smoothed back his hair. Gustavo used to joke that his prematurely white hair was a result of constant worrying about him, and he probably wasn't far off. God, I miss you so much… Did I really kill you because I thought you took Amelia from me – or because you chose her over me?
His feelings for Gustavo were far beyond that of a loyal friend and subject. He loved his king almost as fiercely as he loved his wife. The perceived betrayal from both broke him, and finding out too late they were innocent was the final blow.
Amelia will be better off without me. He took his razor and slipped it in his pocket.
When he returned to the living room, Amelia was trying to convince their son to go to bed.
"I'll read you a story, deal?"
"Alright." The boy ran to Renato for a goodnight kiss, and he fell on his knees, hugging him tight.
"Sleep well" he whispered and ruffled up his hair.
"Papa? Why are you crying?"
"I'm not…" He wiped off his tears and tried to smile.
Amelia left with the boy, and Renato got his coat. But how could he just leave like this? Without saying goodbye to her? He hesitated. He could leave her a letter, but that wouldn't do. He just wanted to see her one last time.
He waited until Amelia finished reading and came back.
"Where are you going?" she asked.
"For a walk."
"You should sleep" she walked over and touched his cheek. "Please, Renato. You don't have to stay in the living room forever. Just come back and sleep beside me. I'm lonely. Last night I dreamt I couldn't find you, I was walking the streets but the city was empty… and you were gone."
"Amelia…" He pulled her in an embrace. "Amelia, forgive me… I never should have doubted you."
She held him close. "Don't go."
"I just need some air" he lied. "Maybe I will sleep better after that."
"But don't take too long. Please."
"I love you." He took her hands and pressed them to his lips. "Remember that. Oh, Amelia, you are an angel and I love you so much…"
She looked at him, worry in her eyes. "I love you too… no matter what happened, I cannot hate you." She caressed his hair. "Come back soon, alright?"
Renato kissed her, in tears, holding her close. He didn't want to leave. He didn't want to break her heart. But he could not go on living.
"Farewell" he whispered, slowly letting go. "Amelia… pray for me… farewell!"
And he ran off into the night.
It was very cold and he had forgotten his hat. He had to sweep snow off his hair several times before he reached the cemetery. He didn't meet a single soul, the city was quiet – of course, everyone was mourning their king.
There were a few lamps in the cemetery, so finding his way wasn't hard. Soon, he stood in front of the monument. It was covered in flowers around the entrance and Gustavo's statue.
Isn't it ridiculous? Renato could swear he heard his voice. I'd much rather rest in some nice, quiet forest…
He felt a hand on his shoulder. It's alright… I'm with you.
"I must be losing my mind, talking to a ghost…"
I did not want you to be alone.
"My king… if you are really here, let me see you…"
Soon. Soon, my friend.
Renato threw off his coat and his jacket, then even his waistcoat. He wouldn't need them. He walked over to the side of the monument and sat with his back against the cold marble. It was almost comfortable. The snow was thick and soft.
He pulled the razor from his pocket and slowly opened it. It was a beautiful thing, ivory with gold inlay, and perfectly sharp.
Slowly, he undid his cuff buttons. He knew it would hurt, but he didn't care. He closed his eyes for a moment and made a cut. But it was not deep enough. Why am I still afraid? He got angry and he cut deeper. It took all his strength not to scream, but now blood was pouring, soaking his sleeve, getting everywhere. Would this be enough? No, no, I have to make sure I die. He repeated it on his other wrist, with trembling hands, and made a mess of it, but he felt relieved once he was done and dropped the razor.
Soon, the snow was red with blood all around him. "Gustavo… are you still here?"
Now he appeared, smiling and carefree, as always.
Of course I am, my dear friend.
"I'm so sorry…"
Gustavo reached out and caressed his cheek. His touch was cold.
You know I have already forgiven you…
"I love you… I just… I was so furious, I felt betrayed…"
Oh, Renato… why did you never tell me? We could have solved it all… we could have been happy. All three of us.
"I was such a fool…"
Gustavo embraced him.
Shhh… it's alright. We will be together, and one day, she will join us.
"Will she be alright?"
She's stronger than either you or me.
He sat in silence, watching the snowflakes dance in the air, his strength slowly fading. Eventually he felt so dizzy he had to lie down. Gustavo was still with him, stroking his hair.
It will be over soon.
"Kiss me… just once… like you kissed her…"
Gustavo leant over him and kissed him, very gently, then, when Renato tried to grab him, with increasing passion. It was sweet but cold, like the touch of death.
"I have dreamed of this for so long…"
I have to admit, I wanted to kiss you for years…
"Why didn't you… my king?"
I wasn't sure what you would say…
"You know you meant the world to me…" He sighed and closed his eyes. "I'm so tired… will you stay?"
Of course. Sleep, my friend. I will watch over you.
"Thank you…" He could still feel Gustavo holding him when he drifted off.
He would never wake again.