Neleh idly watched the final proceedings of the meeting of the imperial court. Despite Asariel’s excellent efforts of performing most of Neleh’s work behind the scenes, she still had to do the public things like attending court. With the decline of the nobility, meetings of the court had become vastly different to how they used to be during the reign of the previous rulers. Now it was more of a gathering place to mediate grievances in a neutral setting. The people that governed the elven cities and provinces might not be lousy administrators only in their position due to their heritage, but that didn’t mean there were no conflicts. Especially now that the war was either winding down, or at least in a bit of a lull, many previously bottled issues came to the surface, which made sure this gatherings dragged on.
That said, Neleh had to admit that Asariel was rather adept at pre-emptively dealing with such issues, probably even better that herself. It seems like the time spent cleaning Gabriel’s messes had not been wasted. The celestial had learned to think of all possible future problems and deal with them before they even became an issue. Most of the problems that came up at court were rather minor. Neleh suspected that even those would’ve disappeared if Asariel had spent a longer time on this world, since many of the issues were those that had appeared during the war.
Another matter that Neleh would have to deal with was diplomacy with the other races. Since most of the other races were still dealing with the aftermath of the war, and would be for a long time, most of the current diplomacy revolved around relief efforts and reconstruction. As the ruler of the richest and currently the most powerful empire, it was fairly normal that the other races looked towards them for help. Especially the human lands had been devastated, and they had still not managed to crown a new emperor. It looked rather likely that if no other external threats arrived, the humans might devolve into a civil war, which would be rather dire for their already ravaged lands.
In addition to the humans, the beastmen were dealing with the environmental damage caused by the magic of their enemy. Much of previously fertile land had turned into arid wasteland or desert by the magic of their enemies. Luckily the naga were able to provide assistance there. While the demons were still ruled by the iron fist of Khali and were content licking their wounds, the celestials had no such luck and were completely adrift.
The celestials had lost their leadership and now even their goddess was out of reach while her temples were nothing but smoldering ruins. Gabriel and her group had led them into battle against the undead in the human lands, but that connection had been broken beyond repair afterwards. First Gabriel had distanced herself from them by remaining close to Neleh, and then she had called for the destruction of the temples of Alarae. Even if the celestials could not fight against her, they were not pleased by her actions to put it mildly.
The races were planning on a large conclave in two weeks, and Neleh was rather curious about the agenda considering the current mess. She herself was also expected to attend, and had even been especially requested. Not that she would miss drama like this anyway, but it was an interesting detail. They clearly wanted to talk to her about something and she could imagine several possibilities. The most likely was that they wanted her to get behind a candidate for the emperor of the humans as her endorsement would carry quite a bit of weight in the current situation. On the other hand, one of the problems with Prince Alexis was that Neleh had too much control over him, so asking her input was a little weird.
As Neleh finally managed to extricate herself from the court, she met both Delia and Elsaria outside the throne room. “Sisters.” Neleh greeted them simply with a smile and a hug.
“Neleh!” Elsaria returned the greeting emphatically. “Done playing the empress for now?”
“For today, yes. It helps when you have a group of helpers.” She replied with amusement.
“Mother needs to talk with you.” Delia blurted out rather untactfully. Years of living with Aneirin had taught her to be blunt sometimes. “She’s been trying to gather her courage for a while now, but keeps chickening out.”
“And the two of you decided to go over her head to force things? Not that I’m against it, mind you. But I agree, I need to speak with her as well.” Neleh replied.
“Well that and we need to talk to you as well.” Elsaria pointed out.
“I thought it was excessive to have both of you work as messengers. Speak. I’ve got time.” Neleh replied as the trio started to walk towards Neleh’s private quarters, where they would continue into their home within Nexus.
“We’re aware that you’re planning a fight against the boss of the enemies we were fighting earlier.” Delia started.
“Well the word is getting around more than I thought. I’m guessing Shiori blabbed?” Neleh asked unhappy that the news was getting out.
“Yes, where is she by the way? Usually she would stick to you like glue when there are potential threats around, like in court.” Elsaria freely admitted their source.
“I’d give her a spanking for leaking the information, but I suppose I understand she’s a little unbalanced at the moment, and feels the need to vent a bit.” Neleh mumbled half to herself, although her words were heard by her sisters that were paying sharp attention. “Shiori has been keeping away from me for two days now. I gave her a mission she doesn’t want to perform and she’s deeply unhappy with me.” She finally replied with more volume, although still keeping her voice down to not be overheard by anyone else.
“What could you possibly have asked to anger her like that? I’m pretty sure she’d do anything for you. I’m not sure I want to even know to what lengths she would go if you asked.” Delia asked in confusion, an emotion mirrored on Elsaria’s face.
Neleh sighed. “That’s part of the problem. I asked something that goes against everything she holds important. I’d rather I didn’t have to, but I’m afraid it’s the only way and she’s the only one able to do it. Anyway, you aren’t here to talk about Shiori. Spit it out, what is it that you want?”
“We want to be part of the fight!” Elsaria demanded emphatically.
“No.” Neleh answered simply.
“What do you mean no? We’re not children, and you know were strong enough to qualify. We know you’re gathering up the strongest people from the various races for that battle.” Delia demanded with an angry look. The two had expected to face some resistance, but for some reason the look on Neleh’s face told them they would not win this argument.
“You will not be a part of that battle. I swear by Elune, if you try to go around me on this I’ll have both of you imprisoned inside our home in Nexus until the battle is over!” Neleh looked at her two sisters with a rare amount of sternness.
“There’s something going on. What aren’t you telling us? This is more than just a bit of overprotectiveness, isn’t it?” Elsaria asked with a sudden realization.
‘She always was a bit too sharp at the weirdest of times.’ Neleh thought with slight consternation. She knew Elsaria would not give in until she found out what she was hiding, so she was struggling between answering and simply going through with her threat of imprisonment.
Finally she pulled the two within her room that was already warded against eavesdropping, but she still signaled the waiting Gabriel to make sure they were not overheard. The celestial couldn’t stand by her side at court, so she had waited for her. “I guess the two of you deserve some answers. Do you remember how devastated mother was after Selvaria’s death?”
“We all were, but what does that have to do with anything?” Delia asked frowning.
“Just this; do you think she could handle losing more than one daughter at the same time?” Neleh asked, keeping herself composed.
“Why? What’s going on? Why are you speaking as if she’s certain to lose at least one daughter?” Elsaria demanded, understanding that Neleh was talking about herself.
Neleh gave a small sigh before replying. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I haven’t been all that well lately.” She looked at her two sisters staring at her mutely. “I’m sick, and even if everything goes exactly according to plan during the battle, I won’t be returning. No need to even mention what would happen if we lose. That’s why I can’t have the two of you along. This isn’t a battle like the previous ones. I’m not sure how many of us are returning even if we win, but I won’t risk the two of you.”
The two were stunned to silence, and looked at Gabriel for confirmation. Even the celestial had heard the details of the plan the day before, and none of the others would. “Sick how?” Delia finally managed to ask.
“And why are you going if you’re sick? Couldn’t the others like Gabriel do it? Why do you have to go?” Elsaria added in slight desperation.
“The details don’t matter, but suffice to say it’s doubtful I’d last all that long even if I did not go. However, I’m going precisely because I am sick. I can fight with no regard for the future, because I already know I won’t have any. I’m not the selfish hero type to throw my life away, but in this case my sickness will even work to our advantage. I can’t tell you the details, but believe in me.” Neleh replied, pulling her sisters into a hug.
“This is why Shiori is angry isn’t it?” Elsaria whispered into Neleh’s ear.
“Yes.” She replied with slight hesitation. ‘Not really though, as that’s only half of it.’ She corrected in her mind, feeling a little bad over her lie.
“I’m not sure I’m able to let you go.” Elsaria said after a while, as they were all still holding each other.
“I’ll tell you the same thing I told Shiori and Gabriel. Death doesn’t always mean the end. You can try to find me in the next life. Gabriel already did it once, so she has experience.” Neleh replied with a whisper.
“I’ll do that.” Elsaria swore in tears.
The trio had spent several hours in an emotional goodbye, until Neleh finally pointed out that she wasn’t disappearing right this minute and she still needed to talk with Asheara. Neleh found her mother at the balcony overlooking their garden where Asheara had for the first time seen her after losing her memories. Right away Neleh noticed that the aura around Asheara was different when the latter saw her approach.
“You remember.” She said simply.
“Yes. Nearly everything at least. It still feels a little like all of that happened to someone else, but I remember. Elune helped me remember.” Asheara replied with a sad smile.
“I’ll have to thank her then. Have you been in contact with her lately?” She asked trying to find out where the goddess had disappeared to.
“No, not since I got my memories back, which was before the attack against the portal in the faerie lands. Honey, I’m so very sorry.” Asheara said with a voice heavy with emotion, and kneeled next to the chair Neleh had just sat on.
“You don’t have to apologize. What’s done is done, and you didn’t know what would happen when you went into the stasis. And you most certainly couldn’t know what would happen when the bond was formed.” Neleh replied emphatically pulling Asheara back up.
“Not for that, although I do feel bad for those as well. No, what I need to apologize for is how I treated you after I woke up with only a part of my memory. Even though I was told that I had hurt you, I didn’t act like your mother but like a scared child. I was too scared and awed, and that led to me forsake my daughter. Even if I didn’t have a single memory of you, I still should’ve tried harder. I caused you pain and I’m deeply regretful of that.” Asheara was crying tears of regret.
“I think we can both carry the guilt over that. I too was too absorbed in what we had lost to build anything new. I’m just glad you returned even for a moment before…” Neleh suddenly closed her mouth, shocked at how she had let her words slip so badly.
However, Asheara replied before she could say anything to cover the slip-up. “Before the end you mean? No need to hide it. I might not be the smartest person around but I can put two and two together. I see how Gabriel hovers around you, and I remember the worried looks Shiori has been giving you over the last few years. I also notice how she isn’t here now. Judging by what you just said, you don’t intend to return from the fight against the Enemy. Having my memories back allows me to say this; I know you wouldn’t throw your life away without a good reason. I assume you have a plan that will make it worth the price?”
Neleh was almost shocked to silence, but managed to reply. “Yes. If things work as I think they will, the Enemy won’t be returning again after this.”
“Well, that’s almost worth the price, so I’ll forgive you for the difference.” Asheara was silent for a moment as a thought occurred to her. “That’s why she isn’t here. You’re going to have Shiori do it aren’t you?”
“How did..?” Now she was shocked enough to stumble.
“You forget that I know you. You can’t have your emotions connected for that long without learning to know each other beyond anything seen elsewhere. And I also know Shiori. She would never leave you during a time like this otherwise. That is the only thing that I can imagine that could drive her off like this. I don’t know the exact details, but it really is a bit too much to ask for your lover to deal the last blow.” Asheara reprimanded Neleh.
“I know.” Neleh admitted heavily.
After a moment of silence Asheara finally dropped another bombshell. “Have me do it. She is your protector, and she might even be unable to do it in the end.”
“Don’t you think I’d have someone else do it if I had a choice? I can imagine a certain demon who might even enjoy it a little.” Neleh replied thinking of Khali.
“Well make it happen. Tell Shiori that you have a new plan. The two of you need to spend this remaining time together. And I really think she wouldn’t be able to do it. Find a way. That’s what you do best. Besides, you might find out that I might have certain advantages she doesn’t.” Asheara finished by pulling out her white sword that allowed her to do so well against mages.