Where All Things End

In all the world he has only told Ahiru, because she understood what it was like, and even then not entirely: she was not the Princess Tutu who danced gracefully through the pages of Drosselmeyer’s original story, who curtsied and smiled lovingly at the prince as her curse changed her body to light, left nothing but but golden dust motes behind.

But Ahiru listened with her large blue eyes thoughtful, and when he finished, she’d put her head on his shoulder and sat for long hours in silence with him, until day bled into night.

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This is what Fakir wrote, on a piece of paper that had been crumbled and thrown into — then rescued from — the fire:

Once upon a time: in a far-away kingdom, there lived a prince. He was noble and beautiful and just, as princes must be, well-loved from the richest nobleman to the poorest servant. And such was the heart of the prince that he loved them all as equally, no one more than the other. There was no trouble too small to be petitioned to his ear, no insult so trifling that he would not pledge himself to right.

And at the same time there was a seventh son born to a poor family that could not afford this extra mouth, so at the earliest opportunity, he was presented to the noble prince as a servant, someone who might come and go and fetch as the prince might need.

The prince, however, said: “I have no need for a servant, for I will not hold any man below me.” He put his hand on the boy’s head and smiled like the sun coming up. “But he can be my friend and ride beside me, for my travels grow lonely.”

At his feet the boy stared into the prince’s brilliant face, and his small eyes were dazzled. He fell to his knees and kissed his liege lord’s hand, and from that moment, his plain mortal heart was forever compromised.

+++

That is something he doesn’t tell Ahiru. He loves her, loves her dearly and passionately, but even so, there’s a part of him he cannot give her, because he lost it long before they ever met.

But she’s the same way, with the part of her that flew away with the Prince and his Princess in their swan-chariot.

+++

Another page, ripped from his journal:

Because the boy came into the prince’s service very young, he did not know many things — like how to hold a sword properly, how to speak softly, how to treat the fluttering young women who flocked to his lord’s side with the respect that was their due. The prince taught him all of this with unwavering patience, always smiling — though he was never unkind, especially at the mistakes.

However, even though the boy was always close to the prince’s side, and although the prince was always very kind, he would also stop the lessons at any moment, to help any and all who appealed for his aid. They traveled wherever the appeals called them, and the boy watched those who knelt at his master’s feet, and thought his heart might burst with love and pride both.

Time passed and the boy grew older, though his prince did not, which suited the boy fine: he could hold a heavier sword now, and dress in the armor befitting the knighted class; he could fight by his lord’s side with the same fervor and strength as the prince himself. Even if he was injured, his master would tend to him (for he called the prince “his master” though the prince simply called him “my friend”), with cool gentle hands and clever bandages.

And if the boy would sometimes blush at the hands on his shoulders, and shift his weight just so, the prince would never comment. If he dreamed things that were unbefitting of the prince’s nobility — things that made him just as human as the rest of the world — the boy would never confess. He was happy just to be close to his lord’s side, companion and friend both.

If only they could have traveled like that forever, how wonderful things would be!

+++

Sometimes, he thinks Ahiru knows what he is writing. He sometimes catches her watching him with a look between sadness and wistfulness, but she never says a thing.

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However (he wrote) things changed, as they always do — even in faraway kingdoms, even the heart of a noble prince. From the cold north rose a great shadow in the shape of a monstrous raven, and all those who fell under the spread of his great wings grew cold and still as one dead. No one was left to cry for the prince’s help, but he came anyway, riding hard, with the boy by his side.

“You must be prepared,” the prince said, as they rode. “This will be a far greater foe than any we have ever rode against.”

“I am not battle-tried, nor beloved the lands over,” said the boy. “You are the one who needs to be careful, my lord.”

And for the first time in what seemed like years, the prince turned and looked at him. He smiled.

“You are a knight in your heart, if not in your body,” he said. “And that is what matters.”

+++

Even years later, the memory of those words makes his chest swell with pride.

+++

This is part of what he did not write:

The prince and the boy-become-knight came to the edge of the northern wood, where the monstrous raven made its lair. They dismounted together and stared up at the dark black shadow it cast even across the sky itself, stretching the full length of the horizon line.

Without a word the prince drew his sword, still staring up at the raven’s shadow. The knight, looking at his lord, thought that perhaps, finally, doom had come upon them both.

Out of love for his lord, and loyalty that remained unspoken, the knight drew his own sword as well.

“If I die today,” he said, “I am glad that I will die for you.”

In surprise the prince looked at him. Then, like he had before, he smiled. “I would have you live, my friend,” he said. “And we’ll leave this place together.”

It did not have the same confident ring of truth that the prince’s true prophecies did, but it was enough to comfort the knight, and they walked side-by-side into the raven’s forest.

+++

Ahiru brings him tea and a blanket, but when she gets up to leave he catches her wrist and holds it tightly.

“Stay,” he tells her. “I remember what comes next.”

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In the wood, they came across a small white cottage that appeared to be completely untouched by the raven’s influence. The knight walked ahead of the prince and rapped his knuckles against the door. Before he could announce them, however, the door opened and a young woman looked out them.

And the knight thought that she must be a princess, though she only lived in a tiny cottage, for like the prince she was slender and graceful and lovely, with eyes the color of the summer sky and dressed in swan-white.

“You should not be here,” she said. “This forest is the home of the great raven, and he will destroy you both if he finds you here.”

“He may try to do so,” said the prince, “but we have come to fight him, and to end his influence over these lands.”

The princess dropped her eyes. “You are very brave,” she said. “The raven will break your bones to suck out the marrow. He will wear your skin as a new coat.”

“He may try,” the prince said again, and the knight looked at him and wondered at this sudden intensity. “We will defeat him.”

She bowed her head. “He will destroy you,” she said. “And then all those who look to you for protection will be left vulnerable to him.”

“He does not frighten me,” said the prince. “I will protect everyone.”

The princess looked to the knight, who looked to his master in fear. “You must keep him safe,” she said. “I cannot help either of you in this place.”

The knight swallowed, and for the first time in his life he tasted fear in the back of his throat. But his lord stood there proudly, still so lovely and strong, and he bowed his head and gripped the hilt of his sword. “I will keep him safe,” he said. “With my own life if need be.”

+++

“And you did,” Ahiru says, though she’s not Princess Tutu any more, she’s just a duck who became a girl, nothing more magical than that — “you did. You *did*.”

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They passed the dark hours with the princess, in her tiny castle — a tiny oasis of light as the shadows pressed in close. She did not walk so much as float, drifting light as feathers on the wind. The prince spoke to her more about the monster raven and its great power, though on that matter she merely repeated her warnings. It troubled the knight, for he had never seen his master so taken by anyone else before. And when they retired to the beds he remained awake, to watch the dim light off the curve of his master’s cheek and consider his vow.

“I will follow you until the end,” he whispered into the darkness, though he knew he was not heard; he slept, and forced himself to be content with that.

+++

The morning dawned cold and gray. The knight woke early, but the prince had risen still earlier, and stood outside the small cottage, looking up at the sky.

“My lord,” said the knight. “Fighting the Raven in his own lair will be madness.”

The prince turned to the knight and shook his head. “It is the only way,” he said. “If we fight him elsewhere, innocent people will be hurt, and some element of his power will remain to expand again, if we allow it. It must be here, and it must be today.”

“My lord–”

The prince turned and he caught the knight’s hand warmly in his own, for even in the chill of the forest the strength of the prince’s heart burned bright. “My dear friend,” he said. “My dearest friend, you’ve followed me faithfully for so many years.”

“My lord, what–”

“I am grateful for your presence,” said the prince. “I have always been.”

And the knight’s ears rang and his cheeks blushed red, for these were words that he’d long ago given up dreaming about, things he’d longed for and quietly put away, for who could ever hope to truly win the heart of the prince who loved all?

He went to one knee, and kept his head bowed. “My lord,” he said. “I am yours.”

The prince’s long slender hands came to rest upon his shoulders, gentle and light as the brush of feathers. “Lift your head,” he said. “Let me see your face.”

And the knight looked up into a face of love, into the face of dreams, and only saw darkness. He pulled back from that and drew his sword, and though it grieved him, he pointed it at his master. “Who are you?”

The prince-that-was-not laughed, and laughed, and all the black woods rang with the sound of it. He spread his arms and they turned to enormous black wings, broad enough to blot out the entire sky.

“Foolish human!” it cried. “Foolish petty human, so easily swayed by your pathetic heart! And now you have spoken the words of binding to me, pledged to my service!”

“I spoke those words to my lord,” said the knight. “I will have no part of your trickery.”

But the words rang hollow, for the raven spoke the truth: he had bound himself, and so he was damned. He tasted bile in his throat and was disgusted with himself even as he raised his sword and stared his doom in its bleak face.

The raven laughed, its mean eyes glittering. “Come fight me, then, little knight!” he invited. “You will see how foolish your silly human dreams truly are!”

And thus the knight was trapped: he could not back away and risk dishonor to his lord’s name, but he could not go forward without death. So he kissed the flat of his blade and thought of his lord’s hand, slim and pale, strong in its grace.

“I die for love,” he said, and looked up into the raven’s face. “I am not afraid.”

He lied.

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A page from Herr Fakir’s notebook, after his death, found torn and crumpled under his mattress:

And so the knight perished, torn apart by the claws of the raven, and so the princess sought to help the prince in his stead, only to confess her love and vanish in a flash of light, and so the prince and the raven struggled against the other in a battle that did not end until many years later.

Perhaps, had things run their natural course, the prince would have mourned for his lost knight, for the boy who’d loved him above all other things; perhaps the prince’s heart, untainted and whole, would have simply felt regret over this one loss while rejoicing that the rest of the world had been saved.

No matter: the heart of the knight remained true, until he found his way back through death to his lord’s side, and with his own two hands finished the tragedy of the prince.

It wasn’t happily ever after, but it was enough.

It was enough.

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