We Are Made of Choices
On a certain day every year, when the sun shone warm on the hills of Altador and the capital city began to gear up for the Altador Cup, King Altador could be found in the archives of his great kingdom, reading.
Perhaps not so much reading, as reminiscing. His paw pads traced the titles on the spines of the history books, reminding him that he actually remembered so much of what they called “history” these days. In Neopia, he thought, heroes never died—they just went away for a while.
He had been away for a while. Every year, Finneus added more books from lands outside Altador, and it astonished the king just how much had transpired during his thousand-year slumber. Meridell had barely been a coalition of tribes a thousand years ago—now it had been through a war and back, gotten tangled up in a time warp, and then another war on top of it all. It was going to take another millennium, Altador thought, just to get caught up with everything that had happened in this one.
His paw paused over a very familiar title. Defenders of Altador.
The king sighed and his ears drooped. This was his annual ritual. Swallowing the lump in his throat, he pulled the book off the shelf.
There was himself and Jerdana on the cover. They should all be on there, he thought—all twelve of them. They had all made this land what it was.
Leaning against the shelf, he turned the pages. It was amazing what a little magic could do—this volume was over a thousand years old and yet the paper showed no sign of brittleness.
“I thought I’d find you here, Altador.”
The white Lupe’s ears perked and he glanced up.
In front of him stood Jerdana, her arms folded as she looked up at him with those wise, ageless eyes. “Gordos had a few budgeting concerns for this year’s Altador Cup,” Jerdana said. “He wanted your opinion.”
Altador paused, then moved to put the book back on the shelf. “Oh—of course,” he said. “I’ll be right there.”
Jerdana’s earstalks swiveled. “What are you reading?” she asked. “Come to think of it, you’ve disappeared into these archives on this same day every year since the re-awakening.”
Self-consciously, Altador showed her the book. “It’s, ah… do you remember this one?” he asked.
The Aisha smiled. “Of course. That’s a very well-written biography of the twelve of us. A few copies were exported to other lands shortly before the long sleep.”
Altador nodded. “And today is… well, I come back here to remember.”
“We all remember,” Jerdana said.
Altador did not doubt that. It would be impossible to forget the day the Darkest Faerie fell.
“Do you still feel guilt over her fall?” Jerdana asked.
Altador’s golden eyes wandered from the floor over to her. “Of course I do,” he said. “Looking back—there’s so much I could have done better. I thought our friendship was strong, but now I see so many weaknesses in it…” He buried his face in his paw. “I have so many regrets that I’ll never get to apologise for.”
Jerdana reached up and put a paw on his arm. “Altador, I’m sorry,” she said. “Have you been beating yourself up about it this whole time?”
He nodded. “I can’t help it…” he said with a bit of a whimper, his tail tucked between his legs. “It still hurts.” To nearly everyone else, he was King Altador, the strong and mighty ruler of a prosperous kingdom, the courageous and undaunted hero. To his ten remaining co-heroes, he was a friend, and it was only with them that he felt safe enough to open up about his fears and sadness.
Jerdana hugged him. “We are all still hurting, too,” she said. “A friend’s betrayal is a heartbreaking thing.”
Heaving another heavy sigh, Altador flipped the book open again. It was lavishly illustrated with paintings of the twelve heroes’ deeds, building their kingdom and saving Neopia from danger and evil. One picture showed him and the Darkest Faerie fighting a purple, Hissi-like monster that breathed a noxious green miasma. That was Kastraliss, Altador realised. The Darkest Faerie had later brought the creature back, this time to serve her commands.
“I wonder if she knew she was going to betray us all along,” Altador said. The thought had never occurred to him until now. What if she had never been on their side? What if their friendship was nothing more than a ruse?
The idea made his heart clench. He looked down at Jerdana, desperate for some sort of reassurance.
She stared at him for what seemed like too long. Finally, she shook her head. “I do not think she did,” she said. “My impression of her was that her friendship with us was sincere. But she let a few little issues turn into big ones, and then made poor choices concerning them.”
“I just don’t understand…” Altador said. “How could she let herself fall so far from us? She was always so strong.”
“We are made of choices,” Jerdana said. “She always had the choice to turn back to us, even if she thought she did not. That was her greatest mistake. She did not believe in herself enough.”
When the Lupe did not respond, the Aisha placed a paw on the book. “Altador, do not torment yourself with guilt over another’s choices,” she said. “That burden is not yours to bear.”
Finally he looked over at her. “I know it sounds silly, but sometimes I wish it was,” he said. “Despite everything she’s done… she was still our friend once. I still care about her. I wish she didn’t have to deal with the pain of her own choices.”
“Ah… that is the great dilemma of being alive,” Jerdana said. “We all must deal with the consequences of our own choices, sooner or later, for good or ill.” She smiled up at him. “Do not despair, my dear friend. If we felt no pain from our mistakes, we would not learn from them, and to be able to learn from one’s mistakes and become a better person is one of the great joys of being alive.”
“You always have a way of putting things in context,” Altador said. “Thank you.”
“And thank you, Altador,” Jerdana said. “You have such a caring heart. It is what makes you such an excellent ruler of our people. Never lose that part of yourself.”
Altador managed a bit of a smile. “I appreciate your praise,” he said as he re-shelved the book. “But I am not the sole ruler of our nation. You and the others do just as much as I. You know we all rule together.”
“Yes, but you are the leadership that binds us all together and gives us direction,” Jerdana said.
“I think you are more than capable of governing yourselves,” Altador said, “but thank you.” He looked around at the other books on the shelf. “I suppose I’m just weary of everything sounding like it’s all about me. I’m ‘King’ Altador, but the rest of you don’t have royal titles. And I still can’t believe we named this kingdom after me. I worry Neopians from elsewhere will get the impression that I’m a narcissist.”
Jerdana chuckled. “I’m sorry, Altador. I can see why you’re frustrated. But to be fair, when we founded the city we took a vote among the twelve of us. The name ‘Altador’ was nearly unanimous—eleven to one.” She tapped her chin. “If I remember correctly, you were the only one who voted for your own suggestion.”
“Yes, because it was either that or vote for my own name,” Altador said. “I rather liked the idea of calling the kingdom ‘Dodecapolis’. It literally means ‘twelve city’—perfect for a nation ruled by the twelve of us.”
“Altador,” Jerdana said with a smile, “it’s a really stupid-sounding name.”
The king’s ears drooped. “Why didn’t anyone just say so?”
“We didn’t want to hurt your feelings,” the Aisha said. She put a paw on his elbow and began to lead him out of the archives. “Come, now. If you spend all day sorrowing over a past that was not your doing, you’ll drive yourself mad, and none of us want that. Fauna and Florin have arranged a picnic for the eleven of us after Gordos gets the budget sorted out.”
In spite of himself, Altador smiled. “That does sound enjoyable,” he said.
“At any rate,” Jerdana said, “Altador, we named the kingdom after you because you represent everything we wanted this land to be. It was the highest form of praise we could think of for your deeds and efforts, and for your stalwart character, and we knew you were humble enough to not let it go to your head. You inspire everyone in our country, and when things go wrong you are the first to take the blame even if no one has put it upon you. Whether you realise it or not, you are the pinnacle of a leader. We need you just the way you are, in the role you have been fulfilling for ages. And if anyone takes issue with that—then their views need readjusting, not ours.”
“I hadn’t really thought of it like that,” Altador said. “Thank you, Jerdana.” She had opened his eyes to a whole other side of the situation that he hadn’t considered. His being king freed his friends to operate in roles where they were needed most. Kelland kept tabs on crime in the city by going undercover; Marak spent most of his time off the coast, ensuring safe passage for ships; Sasha spent her days dancing through the streets, having the time to spread laughter and cheer to even the smallest child.
And although his job was a tough one, Altador could not say he disliked it. It deeply satisfied him to provide for and protect his subjects, and he would gladly leap into danger or just bear the brunt of political tension so they didn’t have to. He understood now why his friends had been so eager to name their land after him. He was their cornerstone.
He cast one last glance back at the rows of books. “Jerdana… do you think she’ll ever make the choice to come back to us?” he asked.
The Aisha paused. “I like to think she will,” she said. “After all, heroes never die—they just go away for a while. She was a hero once. I believe she can be a hero again. The question is whether she believes it.”
“I believe it,” Altador said.
“Then just keep believing in her,” Jerdana said as she resumed walking. “As you always have. That is why you were such an excellent friend to her, despite your doubts.”
A bright beam of sunlight flowed through the open doors of the Archives, and Altador wondered if it was really the sun, or if Siyana was standing outside. A cool breeze blew in from the ocean, bringing with it the fragrant scent of fruits ripening on their branches.
They were all made of choices, he thought. It spurred him to keep making the right ones.