It took Estelar another six days before he managed to return to Rhi’a’non. Every day he spent thinking about it made him more certain, that his term in the service of the emperor had come to an end. Deep down he already agreed with the grievances of other clans and the current emperor was most certainly not suited to the position. At this point, and for a long time now, only his loyalty and his honor had kept him around. He wasn’t sure the new Sun Elf king would be a good choice either, but he would most likely be better for the time being at least. Tarathiel hadn’t started out as a bad emperor either. He simply didn’t have the character required, and let himself be guided by bad advice and self-interest. He had been a good person and a decent friend once, but had quickly lost his way and become jaded and corrupt. Estelar hoped the same fate would not befall the young Aelrindel, should he take the position.
Maybe with different advisors and a strong wife to guide him? It was partially the current nobility of the imperial court and the imperial advisors that had led to the downfall of the current emperor, so if they were cleaned out, then the young Sun Elf might stand a chance. There would also be some focus on restoration after the civil war, which would hopefully keep the new ruler busy, whoever it would end up being. There was after all a chance that the Moon Elves would take the throne, or Aelrindel might not survive until the end.
Everyone at the palace was so used to Estelar’s presence, that they didn’t give him a second look when he walked quickly towards the emperor’s quarters. Even the ever-vigilant members of the Legion of the Phoenix only glanced at him, knowing that if he wanted to harm the emperor, he would have done so a long time ago. He frequently met the emperor in private, which was fairly rare since the Legion took their duties very seriously. It was late in the evening, so the emperor would be in his quarters, but not so late that he would not be handling official matters anymore. That made Estelar glad, because for some reason, now that he had made his mind about resigning, he really didn’t want to wait a second longer than was necessary.
When he found the emperor, Tarathiel was holding a meeting with a group of nobles, few of which held high positions in the army. A gathering of people that had always struck Estelar as self-serving and untrustworthy but the emperor nevertheless favored against Estelar’s advice. Judging from the few words he caught and the maps spread out on the table, they were discussing the status of the civil war. From the quick glance at the map that Estelar saw, the army had rebelled en masse, and the other two clans were pushing heavily into the Eldarinwe held territory.
“Ah good, you’re here.” The emperor said looking up from the discussion. “You’ve probably seen the situation on the field first hand and can give us some details. Can you give us a minute, so we can finish this part up, and then we’ll get to you.” Despite the situation, the emperor seemed to be in a friendly mood.
“I think you might feel differently once you hear what I’m about to say, so it might be prudent to let me say my peace first.” Estelar quickly countered. He didn’t want to stay and listen to their war plans, so they would not have any added excuse for trying to detain him.
The emperor’s face scrunched in a serious frown. He wasn’t a very good leader, but he wasn’t stupid. “Alright, speak Estelar. What is so important?”
“Effective immediately, I resign my position as your advisor, and wish to sever any and all ties to the imperial court.” His tone was calm and peaceful, but his words brought a clamor from the nobles surrounding the emperor, who was looking at Estelar quietly.
“How dare you?! You coward! You’re jumping ship now that things get a little tough?!” One of the nobles screamed, and the others yelled out similar statements.
“Silence.” The emperor commanded, not really raising his voice, but speaking in a tone that was much more grave than was usual for him. This got everyone’s attention and brought the required silence. “You must have a good reason. We have had our differences in the past, but we’ve seen through them before, and you’re not one to shirk from difficulties. So what brought this on?”
Estelar gave a small smile. “For a long time, I have considered you unfit for your position.” This brought another clamor from the nobles, but the emperor waved them quiet, and Estelar continued. “Despite this, I have served you loyally because I had to try and mitigate the damage you were causing, and because it was my duty. And you were a friend once. I had hoped you would grow into your position better, but things have only gotten worse.” Estelar paused for a moment to gather all his thoughts.
Tarathiel used the pause to prompt for more. “I knew you didn’t agree with some of my decisions, and I know you’re too sympathetic to the other clans, but something brought this to head. What is it?”
“You are correct. I happen to agree with the grievances of the other clans, but even that might not have prompted me to resign. What finally tipped the scales, was that you poked one bear too many. Six days ago you made an enemy that I really do not want to oppose, and I also realized that there really was nothing holding me back anymore. I felt more desire to be loyal to the enemy you made, than whatever is left of my loyalty towards you. And the silliest part is, that you made the enemy unknowingly, because you don’t pay attention, and because you like to put in positions of power elven refuse like these sycophants that surround you.” Estelar finished with disgust, and waved his hands towards the nobles in the room.
The emperor was clearly angry, but was also thoughtful. What enemy had he made six days ago? “Six days ago…six days…that was when the first fights within the army broke out. I heard something about celestials being involved in a fight towards Solaris, but surely you don’t mean them? We have not had any official word from them commenting their involvement, and no rebuke or demands.”
“No, not the celestials. Although as a hint, I will tell you they were involved, and that is the battle where you made the enemy. More than that, you’ll have to find out yourself. If the other clans will not get you, this new enemy will, sooner or later.” Estelar took off his insignia, signifying his rank and tossed it on the table. “As a courtesy, I will not be raising my sword against you during this civil war. And as a sign of respect for the friendship we once shared, I will not be leaking the information I have learned while working under you, for as long as the civil war lasts. Goodbye.”
Estelar turned on his heels and walked out of the room. There were of course calls from the nobles behind him, but he ignored them. He noticed that he had forgotten the doors to the room open, and that the guards outside had heard everything. As he walked out, all the members of the Legion of the Phoenix stayed silent but gave him a warrior’s salute, banging their armored right fist on the armor above their heart. Apparently the word about what had happened had spread among the Legion, because the way out was lined with members of the Legion, from standard guards to the Great Silver among them.
The other inhabitants of the palace were wondering what was going on. The Legion would do its duty to the bitter end, and were unable to leave like Estelar had, but they were making their minds known by giving respect to the warrior that had chosen decency and what was right, over misguided loyalty. They were saying that they would do the same if they were able to. As the guards of the imperial palace they were perhaps best aware of what went on in the halls of power. They had seen the wrongness of the emperor’s actions, but it was not their place to interfere or comment. They would hold to their duty and protect even a bad emperor with their life. This time though, they made sure no one bothered Estelar while he made his way out of the palace grounds.
It was too bad the Legion would have to face the first stain on their honor since their founding in less than a month.
Estelar made his way towards the grand temple. He knew Neleh was an Inquisitor, so he should probably report what he knew to them. After that, he would request a sanctuary either from the temple, or from the academy. When he got to the temple, he was guided by a pretty young acolyte, who bore some resemblance to Neleh. Another sister perhaps?
“May I ask for your name acolyte? I think I might know your sister.” He asked, trying to sate his curiosity.
The acolyte smiled a cute smile. “My name is Selene Khalidor, Lord Estelar. Which of my sisters might you be referring to? As a warrior, you might know my sister Selvaria who’s in the army. Most likely you know my sister Neleh though; she tends to leave the biggest impression.”
A wave of sadness went through Estelar, though he didn’t let it show. With the civil war going on, the word about her sister’s death had not reached the girl yet. It might be better if the girl heard it from someone who was closer to her. “Indeed I meant Neleh. She really doesn’t leave anyone cold. And please, I am a lord no longer. One of the reasons I am here, is to request sanctuary.”
The girl gave a grin. “I knew it! There’s a certain kind of look everyone who knows Neleh gives me. A kind of ‘are they really sisters?’ –type of look. And as you will sir Estelar. High priestess Nimue can help you with sanctuary.”
They reached the only door in the temple, which the acolyte knocked on. There was a quick “Yes?” From the inside, to which the acolyte answered with: “There’s one sir Estelar here to see you.”
After a pause, and a mumbled conversation they heard: “Send him in.”
Estelar went inside and recognized the grand Inquisitor, who was also in the room with the high priestess Nimue. They both seemed a little wary, although not much. Understandable, considering Estelar’s reputation as the Right Fist of the emperor.
Estelar gave a small bow as a greeting to both of them. “Grand Inquisitor Yunalesca and high priestess Nimue, just the two people I wanted to meet.”
“Oh? You wanted to meet me too? And what’s this about ‘sir’ Estelar? I’m pretty sure the acolyte has enough manners to call you lord, as much as I know you dislike the title.” Yunalesca asked, suddenly curious.
“Indeed I did. I have some news about an Inquisitor of yours that you might or might not be aware of. As for sir, as of an hour ago, I am no longer a lord, or an advisor to the emperor.” Estelar said calmly, enjoying the shocked expression on the two women’s faces.
“Well don’t stop there. This is a story I need to hear. I hope you’re talking about Neleh, when you refer to an Inquisitor?” Nimue said impatient, worry clear on the old woman’s face.
“Indeed I am. I should probably start with that.” Estelar then proceeded to give a brief explanation starting from when they had met in Solaris, and ending with his resignation and the reasons leading to it. He had given detailed enough explanations, that there had been no real need for questions so far. As he had talked for almost an hour, Nimue had sent for tea to be served, which they were now sipping, while considering everything.
“Well you certainly dropped a pile of news on our lap. You had an interesting two weeks.” Yunalesca finally commented. “So you’re saying that the celestials have Neleh now, and have had her for a week?”
“More precisely Anauel the Chosen of Alarae has Neleh. What they did after the battle, is a mystery to me.” Estelar specified. Anauel’s presence was important.
“We might have an idea.” Nimue commented seriously. “We had been wondering about the reason, but this explains why Avant Heim is currently in our territory. The celestial capital rarely moves into the territory of other races, preferring to stay centrally between the continents. They probably decided to move Neleh to Avant Heim. For what purpose, I don’t know.”
“So the celestial capital is in the elven lands currently? I wonder if they’re taking any measures towards the civil war. Their presence might alter the power balance that is currently favoring the Sun and Moon Elves.” Estelar mused out loud.
“Just to make things more confusing, the naga seem to be moving to our continent en masse. Until five days ago, the Eternal Empress had nearly all of the naga recalled to their underwater empire, but five days ago they’ve started moving back in. They’ve been spreading through the towns in large groups. They’re not saying anything or asking questions, but it seems they are looking for something or someone.” Yunalesca commented.
“You don’t think they might be looking for her too?” Nimue asked suddenly.
Estelar replied her. “Not unless they have some serious ability of foresight. It takes time, to travel from the underwater empire to our continent, and she didn’t really make a splash until six days ago.” Estelar noticed that Nimue had suddenly become very thoughtful. “A gold coin for your thoughts?”
“Just something I suddenly thought about. I’m probably wrong and it’s nothing, but I need to investigate further. This might have bigger implications if I’m right.” Nimue said still in thought.
“On that happy note, I wonder if either the temple or the academy could offer me sanctuary? I just lost my job in a spectacular fashion, and I doubt the nobles will be too happy. Well they will be happy to see me gone, but not with the way it happened.” Estelar asked with a grin.
“Oh, I think your skills could be put to use in the academy. Not many Great Silvers to work there as teachers.” Nimue suddenly answered with a grin of her own. “By the way, you didn’t go into very precise detail with what happened to Neleh in the middle of the battle. What did you see, that finally drove you to throw off the shackles of the Emperor? I always thought it was a shame that you were working for such a dirtbag, when you yourself are a half decent guy.”
Estelar thought for a moment on how to phrase things best. “I saw two things. I saw real power, if only for a moment, and I saw where the future is headed.”
Neleh found herself floating among the stars. It didn’t’ take her more than a second to realize that she was still unconscious, and that someone had most likely brought her mind here. She got confirmation when she felt the presence of Elune and saw a figure floating towards her. The figure had amusingly taken on features almost identical to Neleh’s own, except more mature.
“That’s an interesting choice of forms Elune. Why take my form, albeit with a few differences?” Neleh asked amused.
“Ah, but you are a bit mistaken. I didn’t take your for., Aphrodite gave you your looks based on my form, and added a couple of features of her own. I am supposed to be the idealized form of an Elf after all. Though I have to admit she did such a good job of it, that I also copied the changes for myself.” Elune answered, with her perpetually amused tone of voice, now with bit a side bonus of some visible grin.
“Bah! Leave it to the goddess of love and beauty to take shortcuts. Though I have to admit, that if I do grow up to look like that, she did a good job.” Neleh said, without a shred of conceit. She had after all seen some of the most beautiful beings in the universe before, so becoming one herself was less of a big deal for her. She simply recognized that Aphrodite was very good at her job, and could appreciate the results.
“Why thank you kindly. Although I doubt that was really meant as a compliment for me, I will still take it as such.” Elune’s grin got even wider, if even possible.
“Now I assume you brought me here for a reason, and not just so we can compare looks?” Neleh asked.
“Indeed I did. We have to talk about what happened.” Elune said, for once getting serious.
“Not much to say. I completely lost myself. I’m a little surprised it happened now, but I did warn you about this. It’s a good thing you were prepared. Although I would’ve preferred you had just saved my sister instead.” Neleh said calmly.
“I’m glad you’re taking this so calmly. I knew you would, but any other person would be blaming us in your place, cursing the gods for not sparing their sister.” Elune said with a sigh.
“Well to be fair, unlike the others, I know the limitations you are working under. You are already taking a particularly active role in my life, and I know deities usually don’t take such an active role in the lives of mortals. Normally the deities only work through their servants, and even then you tend to leave enough rope, that the mortals can hang themselves with it if they choose to. It’s just the nature of being a goddess. It is not your job to protect my family, it is mine. And I’m guessing you were also forbidden from stopping what was happening, by a certain someone?”
Elune nodded sadly. “That doesn’t mean I can’t be sad for you and feel bad for you. We might not take an active role, but we do tend to take a particular interest in some of our children. It allows us to live through their lives. We were only allowed to stop your powers from destroying everything, for obvious reasons. You might not hear this from the others and I don’t’ know if you care, but I am so very sorry.” The ever amused goddess actually had a small tear on her sad face.
Neleh gathered the goddess into a hug, which clearly surprised the goddess, who gave a small, but half-hearted struggle before settling. It felt a bit weird for Neleh to hug someone who looked like her. “Tears don’t suit you. You’re supposed to be amused, and grin widely. My sister’s death wasn’t your fault, and soon I will be able to convince myself that it wasn’t really mine either. The only people whose fault it was are those that killed her, and those that made the decisions that lead to her death. I am still a little confused about my reaction though. I knew the death of a family member would hit me hard, but my reaction was a bit excessive.”
The goddess gave a small giggle, still hugging Neleh. “You’re underestimating the power your body has over your mind. You are in effect a teenager with all the associated hormones and mood swings. I know you didn’t face this in your old life, but when you are a teenager, and a girl at that, your moods tend to go to the extremes, and you can’t quite exert the steely control you’re so used to. Wait until the hormones really hit you in the other direction.” The goddess was amused again as she should be, although the reason for that amusement didn’t really make Neleh happy. She elected just to grunt in response.
“That’s part of what we need to talk about. Some of your old powers are coming back, and this recent event will only accelerate that process. While you regaining some of your powers is good for the long term, in the short term you will have trouble controlling them. Especially if something should happen to your mother. We can’t use the same method we did previously, because the more power you regain, the harder you are to stop, and the celestials almost failed last time. We need to have someone who can stop you from going out of control, and preferably someone who can monitor you almost all the time while you’re growing up.” Elune said worriedly. Neleh noticed that the goddess didn’t seem to be in a hurry to separate from the hug that was still going on.
“You can’t do it? I mean you’re living in my head already.” Neleh asked in reply.
“No, the spell we have in mind has to be performed by a mortal, so we leave the choice to you. We would rather you hurried though, just in case. I remind you that the person will need to spend a significant portion of the next thirty or so years with you. We have some ideas, if you will find it too hard to choose, so if you take too long, we will have to go with one of those.” Elune sighed. She really didn’t want to push this on Neleh while she was still grieving, but this was something that needed doing. It was too important.
Neleh sighed as well. “I’ll see what I can do. Depending on where I wake up though, it might take a while.”
Elune giggled again. “Also, you won’t be waking up for a couple of weeks still. You really drained yourself with that last stunt.”
Neleh asked amused. “So are you planning on hugging me for the whole time? Not that I have anything against it mind you.”
“Yes please, if you would. Not a lot of chances for closeness when you’re a goddess.” Elune sighed contentedly.