Hestia still had no idea what was going on.
She’d come face-to-face with Annabelle, who claimed that she had to leave – that she was a prisoner, no less – and then she had agreed to help her escape.
But how could something like that have been happening without Hestia ever knowing? The King had said Annabelle was his honored guest. Was he lying? And then there were those frightening claims by the Dreamer in the throne room, things about kidnapped children on Earth.
What was her King up to? Who could Hestia trust?
For now, she had to place her trust in Athena, which wasn’t so bad. She’d almost been placed under Platina’s supervision, and that certainly would not have gone well. Though the captain of the Royal Guard seemed intent on watching over Hestia regardless.
“Really, Platina, you can leave Hestia under my supervision,” Athena said. She was always even-tempered, and her voice reflected that. Every time Athena spoke, Hestia found it soothing.
“As captain of the Royal Guard, I can hardly allow a traitor to walk free in our midst,” Platina said venomously. “Especially when you insist on reading, rather than watching her.”
The three Royal Guards – though Hestia wasn’t sure if she counted as a member of the Guards anymore – were seated in one of the many spacious studies in the Radiant Palace. Bookshelves lined the walls, and there were no windows, giving it a cozier atmosphere than the rest of the Palace. But the walls, floor, and ceiling were the same gold as everywhere else, so there was ample light everywhere. Hestia sat on a comfortable couch, though she couldn’t seem to make herself comfortable. Athena sat beside her, reading a book that Hestia had never seen before, her entire posture and demeanor the very picture of calm contentment.
Across from them, sitting up rigidly in a leather wingback chair, was Platina. She glared at Hestia – had, in fact, been doing so for quite some time – and Hestia couldn’t manage to meet her gaze.
“She is no traitor,” Athena said. “Not unless the King labels her as such. And he has charged her with nothing.” She turned the page, a pleased smile creasing her lips. “And as for these books, they were an unconventionally delivered gift by our recent intruders. I’m rather enjoying them so far. This Gadrick Gorensell character, he’s quite entertaining. It seems he can’t help but fall into misadventure at every turn.” Athena glanced up for a moment. “Aren’t you curious? We haven’t engaged with Grimoire’s popular culture in centuries. The state of literature has taken some interesting turns in that time, and I find it simply fascinating.”
“If you hadn’t been defeated by a pile of books, we would still have Annabelle in our care,” Platina said.
“Well, as they say, ‘the pen is mightier than the sword.’ In this case I suppose it is also true that the book is mightier than the shield.”
“I don’t need your patronizing proverbs.” Platina pointed an accusing finger at Hestia. “She stopped us from apprehending intruders, and allowed an important resource to escape!”
“A resource?” Hestia asked. “Anna’s a person, not a resource.”
“You think she holds such friendship with you?” Platina asked. “You shorten her name in friendship, but does she actually care for you? You’re too soft to see danger anywhere. I can’t fathom how you were placed on the Royal Guard.”
“That’s quite enough, Platina,” Athena said, fixing Platina with a level gaze. “You know why Hestia is on the Royal Guard. Our King put her here with us. And our King is infallible. If you continue to act in such a way that both questions and disgraces our King, I will have to ask you to leave.”
Platina stared back at Athena, the rage in her eyes not abating. For a long while, she said nothing. Finally, she stood up, nearly knocking over her chair in the process, and marched hastily from the study, slamming the door behind her.
Athena smiled warmly. “This is much better, isn’t it, Hestia, dear?” she asked.
“I… suppose…” Hestia said, staring at the floor.
“There’s no need to act so guilty,” Athena said. “You haven’t been accused of anything, not by our King, and His voice is the only one that matters. He simply asked that I accompany you for a while. And we’ve always enjoyed each other’s company, haven’t we?”
Hestia nodded. “I just… I don’t understand what’s happening,” she said. “I didn’t when Anna was fleeing, and I didn’t when Platina and the King had such a frightening argument over me, and I…” She shook her head, burying her face in her hands. “This doesn’t make any sense to me. Things… they haven’t made much sense to me for quite a long while. I have so many questions.”
“Dear Hestia, share them with me,” Athena said, placing her book down and turning towards Hestia. “We have been together in this pursuit for so many long years. You can trust me.”
Hestia nodded, reassured by Athena’s motherly kindness. “I…” she started, struggling over where to begin. “The war. When we did so much damage to Sunset Square. So many people died, and I… what was that all for?”
Athena nodded, as if expecting this exact question. “Yes, I remember how pained you were after such violence,” she said. “It was difficult, going through so much, only to end up imprisoned for our efforts.”
“No, it isn’t that,” Hestia said, shaking her head. “I mean… why did we kill anyone? We did so again when we came to take the Crystal Palace and turn it into –” she gestured broadly around her, “this. The Crystal Family seemed to escape, along with that messenger girl, but… so many servants and soldiers… we just… killed them. Our King took so many lives, and commanded the same of us. And yet He talks so much about peace, about eliminating evil from this world. It’s left me so conflicted. Platina and Ignis, they seem to delight in such violence, and yet our King continues to keep them in His service, as some of his closest guardians and advisors. Didn’t we start this journey in Grimoire for the purpose of stopping the Endless Night? Our King saw the terrible fate of the universe, and thought out a perfect, wonderful plan to make sure that never happened. And yet…” Hestia stared at her hands. “None of this has gone like it was promised.”
“Our King thinks ahead, far into the future,” Athena said, a reassuring hand on Hestia’s shoulder. “He plans beyond any of us, He sees more than any of us can see. This violence must, then, be necessary, in some way we cannot yet comprehend. His ways are mysterious, wondrous, wise beyond all understanding. While He made us all into gods, He is supreme above us all. It is understandable that we might be confused by His actions. His ways are high above our own.”
“I know that, in my head, but my heart… it tells me a different story. It tells me that all of this is wrong. I know I should not doubt our King, I know I should not question His ways. But He promised me I would help Him achieve peace and prosperity throughout all of creation. He even helped me choose my name.”
“Hestia,” Athena said. “Ancient Greek goddess of the hearth and home, of the right ordering of life and family.”
Hestia nodded. “Yet I feel as if all I have done is aid in ripping others from their homes. I’ve done nothing but bring disorder and tear families apart. I have seen children crying in the streets over the bodies of their parents, and I have watched parents weep as they bury their infant children – and all of those deaths were on our hands. Why are things this way? Why have we wrought so much destruction?”
The door suddenly swung open, and in strode Galahad. His perfect hair and complexion seemed to sparkle with its own light, and he smiled even as his posture and eyes showed some level of distress.
“Ah,” he said, bowing to Athena and Hestia. “Ladies, how do you do?”
“Galahad,” Athena said, nodding to him. “What brings you here?”
“I was looking for our inelegant captain,” Galahad said, plopping down on the couch across from the ladies. “Ignis said I’d find her here, and yet I find the pair of you instead.”
“She just left,” Athena said.
“So I missed her.” Galahad sighed. “Well, I suppose it is just as well. I didn’t actually want to find her.”
“You called her ‘inelegant’,” Hestia said. “What did you mean?”
“My dear Hestia, have you not noticed?” Galahad asked, hand to his chest in overdramatized shock. “Our fearless captain is a boor and a menace! What beauty and grace she once had has been stripped away by time, which should not be able to touch us. She nearly killed the Dreamer, the one who our King explicitly ordered be welcomed into this place with open arms, and she attempted to kill precious little Annabelle on multiple occasions.”
“She tried to kill Anna?”
Hestia was stunned, and it took her several seconds to realize she had leapt to her feet. She suddenly covered her mouth and sat back down, cheeks flushing in embarrassment.
“She did indeed, my sweet Hestia,” Galahad said, sighing. “I do not yet know the reasons. And her boisterous appearance yesterday cost me precious time with the lovely Lady Maribelle. Dearest Lady Maribelle! Ah, but her swordplay is most beautiful, and her face in battle the face of the queen of all angels. She is divine, and once again, she slips through my fingers.” Athena chuckled, earning a disapproving stare from Galahad. “You mock my star-crossed love?”
Athena nodded. “I do indeed,” she said. “Maribelle would never give you a chance, no matter how much you long for her. It isn’t star-crossed, dear Galahad. It is simply, tragically, irrevocably one-sided.”
Galahad moaned, slumping back in his seat, staring mournfully at the ceiling. “My heart!” he groaned. “It cannot bear such horrid arrows of truth!”
“At least you realize it’s the truth,” came a voice from the door. Artemis strode in, hopping up to sit on the back of the couch, her long braid swinging. She nodded to Hestia. “Platina’s giving you an awful time of it. I can’t say I blame her, but…” she shrugged. “I can’t blame you, either. Annabelle was like a little sister to you.”
Hestia sighed, staring at the floor.
“What about my love?” Galahad asked, and Artemis shoved a hand in his face.
“Stow it, prima uomo” she said. “You’re insufferable when you get like this.”
“What brings you here, sister?” Athena asked.
Artemis sighed, her face turning into a scowl. “Boredom,” she said. “Frustration. I can’t believe intruders slipped away from us! They reached the stairs to the throne room untouched, because we allowed it, we set our trap, and it… it didn’t go the way it was supposed to. They were stronger than we expected. Ignis and Nyx never showed up. What happened? How did we fail so completely? And why does our King sit back and do nothing?” Athena’s eyes flashed, and Artemis nodded. “I know, don’t question our King. But surely at least a small part of you is confused as well.”
“Our King has always taken his time to make decisions,” Athena said. “It is why He has taken us so far. We must be patient.”
“So fine, how about my other concerns?” Artemis asked. “Why didn’t Ignis and Nyx show up?”
All eyes in the room turned to Hestia.
“I had nothing to do with it!” Hestia said, waving her hands in a panicked display of innocence. “I never even saw them.”
“They were supposed to come from that same hall,” Artemis said.
“I don’t know anything about the plan, I didn’t even know there was supposed to be a trap, and all of this just leaves me more and more confused. Why were you setting a trap? Why would you use dear Anna as bait? And why did Anna say that she needed to escape, that she’d been held captive by our King?”
Hestia’s concerns seemed to cause a change in the room. Galahad’s moaning over romance ceased, and he seemed to actually form a serious thought. Artemis’ expression softened as doubt crossed her face.
“Annabelle’s said that before,” Artemis said softly. “It was shortly after she arrived at the Palace. Our King called her an honored guest, but when I went to visit her alone… she asked me to set her free.”
“She’s implied as much to me, though never so directly,” Galahad said, leaning forward and resting his chin in his hands. “And there have been… very curious exchanges between her and our King at times.”
“And now our King wants to go back to Grimoire,” Artemis said, rolling her eyes. “It’s been too long. We’ve made our homes here. What does going back to Grimoire have to do with stopping the supposed Endless Night?”
“Supposed?” Athena asked.
“Don’t you think it’s odd that after all this time, after so little action by our King, we have seen no signs of the coming darkness?” Artemis asked. “Where is the Endless Night? Where is the darkness? What is the glorious purpose we were all called to, the great mission to save all of creation from annihilation? I see only arrogant power-mongering, and –”
“You will take that back this instance!” Athena shouted, standing up and glaring at her sister. The entire study went silent for a brief moment, before Artemis rose to her feet as well, meeting Athena’s rage with a level gaze.
“Surely you’ve asked yourself the same questions, in the solitude of your heart,” Artemis said softly. “Surely you have wondered at this constant bloodshed. To what end have we claimed so many lives? The more time that passes since the war at Sunset Square, the more time that passes since the taking of this Palace, the more I find my heart trembles at the thought of the lives I took. The more my soul cries out that they were innocent, and I killed them for nothing.”
“Not nothing,” Athena said. “Our King does not ask anything of us without reason.”
“But do we know his reasons?” Artemis asked. “Our King said we would all be gods – equals! Yet he tells us so little, treating us as mere humans.” She looked to Hestia. “You have raised these concerns more than anyone. I wish I had listened to you sooner.” Her eyes flashed, turning back to her sister. “You will soon wish the same thing, I am certain of it.” She strode from the room, leaving before anyone could counter her claims.
“I am not one to be so sentimental over doing my job,” Galahad said, “but I must say I have found the violence that pervades our time as Eternals to be rather distasteful. It is as Lady Artemis said – the more time passes, the more my sword hand trembles at the memory. And our King did call on us to only spare the Dreamer. He was perfectly willing to have us kill the others with her, and they were mere children. Not Enchanted, not Eternals, no inflation to their lifespan.” Galahad’s eyes fell, his face losing its overacted drama for a moment. “I have slain many children. I wish I had thought on it more at the time.” He stood, sighing, his dramatic play-acting returned. “But it is as you always say, Lady Athena. Our King commands, and we but humbly follow.” He left the room, but stopped at the doorway to leave one last line. “I do hope our King will do something about Platina and Ignis. Their bloodlust has grown since we were young, and I fear it will do our cause no good.”
Once again, Hestia and Athena were alone. Athena seemed to only now realize she had acted in anger, and swiftly sat down, taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly.
“It is not our place to question our King, dear Hestia,” Athena said. “I sympathize with you and our fellow Guards. But He is so high above us. How can we possibly think to know better than He?”
Hestia sighed, looking away.
This was why she did not often voice her concerns. Athena was the one she felt most comfortable with, most able to converse with. Yet there was one powerful barrier between them, a wall which Hestia was certain she could never breach.
Whatever secret thoughts rested in her heart, Athena would never outwardly show even the slightest hint of disobedience to the Radiant King.
Hestia didn’t mean harm, and she didn’t mean to cause such friction between her fellow Guards – her family, the only family she could possibly still have after becoming an Eternal. But how could she keep these frightening questions to herself? Unlike Artemis and Galahad, Hestia hadn’t actually taken life – she was a Support mage, she only aided her allies and kept them healthy and safe – but she had participated in slaughter that haunted her memories.
In the midst of all of these questions, in the midst of wondering what all these centuries of serving her King had been for, Hestia could take solace in doing one good thing.
She had managed to help Anna claim her freedom. And she had helped ensure that the Dreamer’s friends lived. Hestia, as much as it pained her, could not say that the work she had done for her King for so very long had been good or just. She simply did not know, but every day she felt more and more as if it was not.
But she could say with certainty that she had been right in saving Anna. And knowing that she could be certain she had done at least one thing right in her very long life brought a small spark of comfort to her ailing heart.
Please be safe, Anna. Please be safe, Dreamer.
And I earnestly hope, with all my heart, that I can see you both again. Hopefully then my heart will not be so clouded over with doubt.
Hopefully then, whatever path my life is on, I can at least say that the path is one of my choosing, and that it is closer to the right path than what I have been walking for so very long.
If that means leaving my King, my Guards, and my family forever…
Then perhaps that is how it should be.