“And you’re really ready?” Ei asks seriously. “You’re sure? It’s not too late to change your mind, I can make up a different ‘important announcement.’”
“Ei-mama,” Ren murmurs, putting her hands on Ei’s shoulders. “It’s fine. I’m ready. And I’ll still have Makoto and you and Miko-mama and Kokomi-mama supporting me, won’t I? I’m not alone, Ei-mama.”
Ei swallows, but nods.
She had always hoped, deep down, that one of her children would choose to take up the position of Shogun, would remove the burden from her shoulders and allow her to retire peacefully with her wives.
And today, Ren will.
She is ready, Ei knows this — far more ready than Ei had ever been. She inherited her Kokomi-mama’s skill at reading people and her Miko-mama’s cunning, which offset her introversion enough to make her a formidable leader. Her martial prowess is also formidable — certainly not yet at Ei’s level, it will be centuries before she could possibly give her mother an actual challenge, but Ei is certain that her daughter will one day surpass her. Seeing that day come is one of her most cherished dreams…
Not that she intends to make it easy for Ren, of course. That would be an insult to her daughter’s drive to improve as a martial artist.
But even so, even though she knows Ren is ready, even though she’s been preparing Ren to take over for years, ever since her daughter expressed interest in doing so…
Ren is barely forty. In Ei’s eyes, she might as well still be a baby. How can a baby actually be ready?
“Ei,” Kokomi sighs, stepping forward and yanking Ei back by her collar. “You’re so old that you’ve forgotten how much growing takes place in the early years. I took up the post of Divine Priestess at fourteen, and I managed — Ren is much more ready than I ever could have been.”
“No, no, let her continue, this is hilarious,” Makoto snickers, earning a smack from their wife’s fan. “Ow! Hanabi! What was that for?”
“Don’t tease your mother,” Hanabi scolds. She offers Ei a gentle smile. “Master, I know it’s hard to let go, the idea of letting Hinata take over from me is terrifying… but it’s time. Ren is ready.”
Ei sighs. She knows that her wife and student are right, and is well aware that doing anything that Makoto suggests in such a teasing tone is a recipe for looking ridiculous. So, even if doing so makes her feel like she’s attempting the impossible…
Ei nods and presses a kiss to Ren’s forehead.
“Okay,” she sighs. “Miko should be done with the preparations soon, I suppose.”
She takes one last look at her daughter: Ren, for all that she’s a god with skin as impenetrable as Ei’s own, prefers to wear actual armor rather than any of the styles of kimono Ei had favored in the past. ‘It’s never a bad idea to be careful,’ she likes to say — though given any metal on the planet is going to break before the flesh of someone of Ei’s bloodline does, Ei thinks it’s a little silly.
Despite that, Ei can’t help but admit that the armor gives Ren an imposing appearance despite her height being barely more than Kokomi’s. She still keeps her hair short, though she’s let it grow out just a little compared to her younger days to make the pink edges she’s inherited from Kokomi more prominent.
All in all, Ei thinks, their daughter looks more ready for the battlefield than for a transfer of power… Not that Ei can talk. If she had her way she’d be marching off to war rather than a ceremony where she has to speak in front of all of Inazuma City.
“Everyone ready?” Miko asks as she steps into the room. “Ei hasn’t called it off yet, right? Yoimiya told me to tell my stupid wife that if she does, the fireworks for tonight’s celebration are going right up her ass.”
“She could have meant Komi,” Ei protests weakly.
“She specified the stupid one,” Miko says flatly. “That could only refer to the soon-to-be-former Raidense Shogun.”
Ei pouts at the corruption of her title, doing her best to ignore everyone else in the room laughing at her. She’s been getting better at it, but moving on is still difficult for her: even if it’s such a supposedly simple form of ‘moving on’ as accepting her children have grown up.
“Oh, and Ei? Disable the puppet’s tear ducts,” Miko instructs. “We don’t need you sobbing through the entire announcement. Makoto’s wedding was embarrassing enough.”
“Yes, yes, I get it, it’s another ‘tease Ei’ day,” Ei mumbles, pout intensifying.
She’d only cried through half of Makoto’s wedding, thank you. Maybe three-quarters.
And Miko had too, and so had Kokomi, so it’s not like they actually have any room to talk. At least Ei hadn’t been officiating like Miko had — their kitsune had barely managed to get her words out through her tears. Ei has photos.
“Your Excellencies?” Sara calls, poking her head through the doorframe. “Everyone is waiting.”
“We’ll be there in a moment, Aunt Sara,” Ren promises. “We’re just making sure Ei-mama won’t make a scene.”
Even Ei finds the contortions Sara’s face goes through at that statement amusing, despite the fact that Ren’s joke had been at her own expense: poor Sara has never quite managed to get over her reverence for Ei, and the way that their little extended family tends to make the god the butt of so many of their jokes is quite the challenge for her.
Ei, on the other hand, has gotten very used to it and is just glad that her presence gives the people she loves so much amusement… even if she certainly has no plans to stop complaining at the treatment, especially from a hypocrite like Miko.
“Well, let’s get this over with,” Ei sighs, stepping forward.
“You did disable your tear ducts, right?” Kokomi checks.
“Yes,” Ei grumbles. “Yes, I did.”
The patronizing pats she receives from her wives draw dirty looks, but she attempts to gather what little dignity she has left as she steps out onto the balcony overlooking the courtyard in which what certainly looks like everyone in Inazuma City has gathered… even if she’s sure that not everyone could actually fit.
“People of Inazuma,” Ei declares, her power over storms causing her quiet voice to ring out in peals of thunder across the entirety of her nation to ensure nobody misses this moment. “Today is the last day I will stand before you as your Raiden Shogun. I have defended this nation for more than two thousand years, and…”
Ei trails off, suddenly very glad that she’d listened to Miko and disabled her ability to cry, because she would be sobbing.
“And it’s time for me to step down now,” Ei continues shakily. “It’s been an honor to be your god, to be so loved by all of you, but my time is over. My daughter, Ren, will be your new Shogun.”
Ei gestures, and Ren joins her on the balcony to thunderous cheers from the gathered citizens. Ren is an extremely popular figure in Inazuma, always traveling around the islands and spending time getting to know the common people. Her quiet demeanor makes her an excellent listener, and Ei thinks that she’ll be a more popular ruler than Ei or the original Makoto had ever been.
“You all know her,” Ei says. She pauses, considering — then decides that this is no time to continue with divine dignity. She can be honest, here, at the end. “I’m sure she’ll be a better Shogun for you than I ever was — she’s inherited so much from her other mothers that will ensure it. I won’t be gone, if Inazuma ever needs me, I’ll be around… but from today on, I am no longer your god.”
“You’ll always be our god!” someone in the crowd yells. “We’ve just got another now, too!”
Ei is caught off-guard — nobody has ever interrupted one of her speeches before — and completely overwhelmed when the rest of the crowd begins shouting their agreement. All across Inazuma, she feels prayers rising to her, thanking her for everything and promising that the ones offering them up will always love and revere her.
“I…” Ei begins, then defiantly turns her ability to cry back on and allows her tears to spill. “Thank you. Thank you, all of you. I… I don’t even know what to say… I love you all.”
She feels Ren wrap her in a hug, and she buries her face in her daughter’s hair as she sobs.
“I’ve got big shoes to fill as Shogun,” Ren says softly, her voice ringing out across Inazuma just as Ei’s had before. “My Ei-mama did so much for Inazuma that even imagining trying to be her successor has me terrified. I hope that I’ve inherited even a fraction of her courage and patience, because I’ll need them… But I promise you, I’ll do my best.”
The cheering is deafening, almost like thunder itself. The rest of the ceremony is a blur to Ei — she’s vaguely aware of Ren’s speech continuing and Makoto stepping up to speak as well, but as Miko and Kokomi pull her back and hug her tightly her world narrows to one of three people.
“I’m so proud of her,” Ei sobs quietly. “How did she grow up so well?”
“Because she had all of us,” Kokomi replies quietly, her own voice filled with unshed tears. “And Makoto… and because she’s just a good girl.”
“She is,” Miko whimpers, and Ei is pleased to note that their kitsune is crying just as hard as she is. “She really is.”
The fireworks that evening are beautiful, Ei reflects. She’s sitting alone on top of Tenshukaku — her wives and children are out enjoying the festival, but Ei needs a moment of quiet alone.
Passing on the position of Raiden Shogun is a bittersweet thing. It’s a title she’d never wanted, one that had never sat comfortably on her shoulders — but it had been an inheritance from her sister, and an acknowledgment of everything that Ei had done for Inazuma in the past that she alone now remains to remember.
She had never dreamed that her people loved her as much as they’ve proven to today, and the even more awe-inspiring part is how she had felt prayers even from the people of Watatsumi Island. The final proof that she had managed to win them over, to show them that she truly loves and cares about them… A part of her had never really believed it, but now she has to.
“What would you have thought if you were here today, Makoto?” Ei asks quietly. “Would you have been proud of me? Would you have been crying with me as we watched Ren take up our throne?”
She receives no answer.
Inazuma has changed, Ei reflects, and so has she. Once, the idea of an Inazuma without her sister at the helm had terrified her, had been an Inazuma she believed doomed to ruin. Her own foolishness had almost created that exact scenario during the year of the Vision Hunt and Sakoku Decrees, but thanks to Miko (and, to a lesser extent, Kokomi as well) it had been averted. Now, looking forward to the prospect of an Inazuma taking on yet another new ruler…
Ei feels no fear.
She has absolute faith in Ren, in her wise and strong and kind daughter. In her younger years Ren had struggled with things in much the same way that Ei had, but Makoto (the new one, of course) had proven to be a truly wonderful older sibling and helped her through all of it in a way that…
In a way that Ei wishes her sister had done for her, but can recognize now that neither she nor the original Makoto were equipped for.
“My children will give Inazuma a brighter future than either of us could have ever dreamed of, Makoto,” Ei whispers. “A future happier than our Eternal Inazuma.”
She feels a presence settle in at her side in a gust of wind, and she rolls her eyes.
“Barbatos, to what do I owe the pleasure?” Ei asks, though there’s no heat in her voice. Normally she would find the other god’s presence thoroughly irritating, but right now she’s too mellow.
“The wind told me what was going to be happening in Inazuma, so I just had to attend,” the wind god says, none of the teasing mockery she’s used to present. “Your children are really something, Ei.”
Ei gives him a strange look — that’s not the name she’d expected to hear from his lips.
“Would you prefer Beelzebul?” Barbatos asks. “No, I don’t think so. You’ve cast that past aside, Ei. Who you are now is someone entirely different, someone far more at peace with herself. You know me — I’m all about freedom. I’m never going to chain someone to the past. You’re Ei now, wife of Miko and Kokomi, mother of Makoto and Ren. It suits you better than being Beelzebul ever did.”
“…Thank you,” Ei whispers, staring back up at the stars. “I… hearing that from you…”
If even an old acquaintance like Barbatos sees Ei as having grown past who she was, can put aside his love of needling her to acknowledge the woman she’s become… maybe it’s true. Maybe Ei really has grown.
“We’ve had our differences,” Barbatos agrees. “But I’ve never once hated you. Seeing the solemn little girl that I met all those many years ago so happy… It makes me hopeful that the world we’ve left behind us is a better one than the world we were born into.”
“It is,” Ei says, forcibly dragging her gaze down from the sky and to the festival that fills every street of Inazuma City. “It’s a world that contains my children.”
“That’s the spirit!” Barbatos laughs, slapping her on the back. “I’ve gotta say, I’m still not thrilled by a nation ruled by a god… but your Ren’s a good girl. I’ve been listening to what the people think of her, and if a god’s gotta be in charge… I’m glad it’s her.”
“…Thank you,” Ei murmurs again. “Not words I would have expected from the God of Freedom, but I’m glad to hear them nonetheless.”
“Yeah, well,” Barbatos says, shrugging expansively. “I never would have expected the God of Eternity to let go of her position so completely, but here we are.”
“It’s their Eternity now,” Ei says, smiling softly. “Being Eternal doesn’t mean that the old shouldn’t still make way for the new.”
“Even fifty years ago you would have disagreed with that,” Barbatos points out.
“You’re right,” Ei agrees. “I’m much wiser than I was fifty years ago.”
It’s strange, Ei reflects. This is probably the most civil conversation she’s ever had with Barbatos — when he’s like this, she almost doesn’t hate him.
“How is Morax doing?” she asks. “I’ve seen the others on diplomatic trips, but he’s dropped off the map.”
“And what makes you think I know where he is after going to ground?” Barbatos teases, raising an eyebrow.
Ei just stares at him blankly. She knows he knows. Morax and Barbatos had always had the closest friendship of any of the original Archons, and Barbatos has a habit of turning up unannounced even when unwanted anyway.
“Fine, fine,” Barbatos sighs, waving his hand airily. “The old man’s doing well. He says thanks for your part in destroying the Heavenly Principles, by the way — he’d thought he was doomed to erode like Azhdaha, but now he gets to pester the children for thousands of years to come.”
“That was a messy business,” she sighs. “No thanks are necessary — I did it for my family, for Inazuma, and for myself. He wasn’t in my thoughts at all.”
“He thought you’d say that,” Barbatos agrees cheerfully. “So he also told me to give you this when you did.”
Ei stares at the small box that Barbatos is holding out to her in confusion, but accepts it carefully and opens it to find… a letter?
To Her Excellency, the Almighty Narukami Ogosho, God of Thunder,
You truly have no idea how much it warms my old heart to know you’ve found happiness. I had always hoped that the quiet, melancholy child hiding in Baal’s shadow would one day find the courage to step into the light, and from the stories Barbatos has passed on to me it’s clear that you have done so at last — and found yourself flourishing.
Children are one of the greatest treasures in the world, and to my regret I never found the time for them — that you have is proof that there is some form of justice in this world, that one who sacrificed so much for others has been so blessed in return.
Enclosed in the box, within a trick compartment, is a small gift to demonstrate my congratulations for your growth, and my apologies that I was never able to do more for you as your senior. I do hope we will one day get the chance to speak again in person, and to drink together as we once did... and perhaps without you tossing Barbatos through my wall this time, hm? The humble little home I reside in now is rather less sturdy than my palace was, and I fear it might collapse should we see a repeat.
“No promises, Morax,” Ei mumbles, side-eyeing Barbatos. “The bard is really annoying when he drinks.”
She reaches down and opens the trick compartment… and finds herself gasping as she reverently lifts the bronze engraving that it contains up and into the moonlight.
Ei is a blacksmith without peer, but delicate engravings have always been Morax’s domain — and this is perhaps the greatest of his works that she’s ever seen.
Carved into the metal is a scene that seems to come to life in her memories even as she gazes at it:
Morax, sitting at the head of the table with a reserved smile as he takes a sip of his wine.
Barbatos, loudly cackling beside him, a pile of empty bottles showing just how much he’s had to drink.
Makoto giggling at the wind god’s antics, saucer of sake held daintily in her hands.
Ei, looking shy and fearful as she sits behind her sister, no drink in her hands at all.
And all around them are the others from the original group of Archons, the warmth that the group of friends had held an almost tangible thing radiating out from the plaque.
Ei remembers how she’d felt, how terrified she’d been at being surrounded by so many other powerful gods even though they’d been so kind to one another. There had been an ever-present fear that they’d turn on one another, and while the little martial arts maniac Ei had been had been sure she would be the victor of any such conflict… she had not believed she could win while keeping Makoto safe.
And then, beside the scene from the past, providing a striking contrast to the scene of who she had once been…
Ei doesn’t know how Morax learned what her children look like, though Barbatos showing him photographs seems likely. However it happened, though…
A family portrait.
Ei sitting with a smile on her face, no sign of the fearful little girl from the party present as her wives lean against her sides and her grown children stand proudly on either side, Ren with her hand on Miko’s shoulder and Makoto with theirs on Kokomi’s.
And above them, so delicately carved that even Ei’s divine eyes have trouble gaining certainty that she’s not imagining it…
The original Makoto, her sister, smiling down on them.
“Tell him thank you,” Ei breathes, tears streaming down her cheeks. “This… This is incredible.”
“Tell him yourself,” Barbatos suggests. “I can show you where he’s living.”
“…I would like that,” Ei whispers. “Thank you, Barbatos. Maybe I won’t throw you through his wall after all.”
As Barbatos laughs loudly, Ei continues to gaze at the carving, the scenes from past and present blending together into everything that makes Ei Ei.
This, Ei thinks, is the Eternity she’s always sought.