The Friend of the Goddess
Ely sighed and flopped down on the grassy floor.
“Aaaand she’s gone. Quite literally, with the wind. Anybody who claims I have a penchant for drama clearly hasn’t had a proper conversation with that woman.”
“Ely, I think you might be the only person I know who’s able to have a ‘proper conversation’ with a deity. Aren’t you afraid Lady Yingquan will condemn your soul to eternal suffering for your disrespect?”
“Hm? Not really. She might be a little playful, but she’s not the petty sort. Besides, she likes me too much for that.” Ely flashed a grin. “If anything, I’m more worried that she’ll reward me with an eternity as her gossip partner. Seriously. Once she gets going, she doesn’t stop. But other than that, she’s a nice person.”
Ely’s voice drifted off as she spoke that last line, her mind seemingly faraway, possibly reminiscing on some long-past conversation with the Goddess. I felt something stirring within me, a strange emotion that was unfamiliar to me, but that had grown increasingly less so in the last couple of hours. I pushed it down and tried to distract myself with more questions.
“You seem to be really close to Lady Yingquan. I don’t recall the two of you being such good friends, back when you were still fighting for her. What changed?”
Ely closed her eyes, her face solemn, clearly thinking back on those bloody days. Back then, I knew that Ely had the great honour of sharing tea with Lady Yingquan numerous times. It was a fact that made me rather envious at the time, especially since it coincided with my own courtly education, where I first learned to venerate Her Grace. But Ely would always return from these sessions upset or frustrated. I remember, with no small degree of shame, how indignant I felt about Ely not understanding how lucky and blessed she was to bask directly in the glory of the Lady. But it was certainly not the kind of expression I would expect to see on the face of someone who had just spent hours in the company of as close a friend as Her Grace now seemed to be to Ely. Something, somewhere had changed in their relationship, and I was curious to find out what. After what seemed like an eternity, Ely answered my question without opening her eyes.
“It was just after the ritual to send me home occurred. Yingquan stopped me on the way back. Then she prostrated herself before me to beg my forgiveness. She refused to get up until I had accepted her apology.”
My jaw dropped.
“You’re saying that Lady Yingquan, a goddess, bowed down to you?”
“Yeah. Of course, I couldn’t forgive her so easily for what she had done to me – what she had done to us. I shouted at her. I took out my rage on her. I kicked her, over and over. I cried a lot. Through it all, she didn’t even budge. She couldn’t die from my assault, of course, but she didn’t even attempt to heal herself, even after I’d made a bloody mess of her face. And then, after a very long time – years, at least, though I forget how many exactly – my rage was spent. I couldn’t find it in myself to hate her any more. I was tired. Tired of the anger, tired of the violence, tired of the hate. So I told her that I forgave her, because it was true. After venting out my fury, I no longer felt angry at her. When I told her so, she raised her head and smiled with her mouthful of broken teeth.”
I blinked, trying to wrap my head around the concept that Elysium had literally beat up a goddess, but she didn’t slow down with her explanation.
“Of course, when I calmed down and saw the state of her face, I felt really bad. So I agreed to have a drink with her one more time, before I returned home. We talked about the war. We talked about the reason for the war. We talked about why she needed the position, no matter what. We discussed the politics that the gods engaged in. We laughed at the ridiculous bureaucracy that constituted the Celestial Courts. We talked about the other five contenders for the position, and we drank to the memory of the heroes that had fought in their name. We talked about you. Or, well, I talked about you. She mainly listened. She’s a surprisingly good listener.”
I felt my face flush with heat.
“Wait, what were you talking about, regarding me?”
Ely opened one eye, stared at me, then closed it again.
“That’s a secret.”
“Oh, come on!”
“Relax, it was nothing bad. But some of it is a little embarrassing to repeat, so I won’t. I was more than a little drunk at that point.”
“Wait, you? I thought you didn’t get drunk.”
“Wine of the gods is some strong stuff. Anyway, we talked for decades, I think. Time didn’t really pass in that space, but to me, at least, it felt like decades. We talked until we ran out of things to talk about. Finally, it was time for us to part. My initial animosity towards her was completely gone by that point. I saw her as a friend. Evidently, the feeling was mutual. She extracted a promise from me to always consider her a friend, which I made without qualms. We reached a bit of an… understanding, I think, that day. She told me why she chose me as her hero, and when I heard the answer, I couldn’t really bring myself to refuse her offer of friendship.”
“Oh? Why did she choose you?”
It was a question I had asked myself several times during my time being raised in the court. Why was Ely, of all people, chosen to fight? She wasn’t particularly athletic. She had no experience fighting. She was intelligent, definitely, but so were many other people. The only advantage that Ely really had over others was an unparalleled talent for showmanship – hardly the sort of quality you would be looking for in a warrior. So why was Ely chosen? Curious to learn the answer, I turned on my side and faced Ely, whose closed eyelids were staring upwards at the clear night sky, glancing at something far away, something only she could see.
“That’s a secret, too.”
There was a sort of mysterious quality to her voice that caught my attention and refused to let go. A strange cross between wistfulness and bemusement. It was a tone that caused something within me to stir – a strange sense of discomfort, a tightening of the chest. I clutched my hand to my breast and said nothing, watching the slow rise and fall of Ely’s chest, moving to the rhythm of her breathing.
Unnerved by the discomfort within me, I tried to analyse myself for abnormalities. A quick system diagnostic found no errors in my subsystems – not that I expected to find any. No, I had a nagging suspicion about the nature of this emotion, and it had nothing to do with my hardware. In fact, rather than just a suspicion, it was probably closer to a conviction. I knew what this feeling was. I probably had known what it was since I first regained my memories and met Ely again, in this second life. But that was impossible. Or, it should have been impossible.
As my thoughts circled in and around on themselves, creating contradictions and generating more queries than solutions, I became increasingly mired in a mental bog of uncertainty and aborted logical loops. I knew what was happening to me, but I had no idea why it was happening, or what caused it to happen, or – most importantly – whether it was alright that it was happening. I found myself thinking, and analysing, and deliberating, and generally trying to make sense of the existence of this emotion. I found myself arguing with myself about whether it was alright to feel this way, my thoughts spiraling ever deeper into a larger, more convoluted mess of propositions and counter-arguments and evidence and analysis and emotive outbursts and technicalities and whats and whys and ifs and hows and propositions and-
Ely’s voice jerked me out of my quagmire of confusion. I glanced over to her and saw that she had since drifted off to sleep, curling up on the floor. Sweat was beading on her forehead. A nightmare?
“Eury, please. Take my hand. Let’s go home together. Eury…!”
Instantly, my confused thoughts were wiped clear, replaced with a single, distinct emotion: regret. I knew that line. She was reliving the moment of our parting, when I refused to follow her home, choosing instead to stay in the Emperor’s court, enamoured as I was with the glamour of courtly life. What an ugly, despicable lie that was. Almost as ugly and despicable as the girl who chose luxury and ignored her sister’s pleading. Until the day of my death, I revisited that scene over and over again. My guilt drove me to welcome my death without resisting as atonement. The pain of my guilt was a pain I knew well. But what was far more painful was the knowledge that the memory of this scene stayed with Ely, all the way into her adult life. The knowledge that the memory of my betrayal was so deeply engraved in Ely’s psyche, and the knowledge that it caused her such anguish – a thousand deaths was not sufficient as atonement.
I gently placed my hand in hers. She clenched my palm tightly, her hand cold and shaking. I cut the cold air around us to help keep Ely warm, then took her hand in both of mine and held it close. Her trembling slowly ground to a halt, until she was sleeping peacefully. I brought her hand close to my chest and hugged it tightly.
“I won’t leave you, Ely. I made that mistake once. Never again.”