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In all the years I'd existed, I'd never expected to be free.
I was the daughter of Titans, and as such, I'd always accepted it as fact that they would rule. They were without question the most powerful beings in the universe, after all. They controlled everything and everyone. They were our makers. They were our gods.
But after ten years of rebellion and war in an effort to protect humanity from our father's twisted games, we were the gods now. Still in our infancy compared to our creators, my siblings and I now ruled over the world and all her inhabitants. And as I stared out across the great expanse that was our domain only minutes after our battle had ended, I felt something I thought would end with the war: I felt fear.
It was unnatural. What did we, the captors of Titans, the new generation of gods, have to be afraid of? But the more I tried to picture the future, the clearer it became to me. We hadn't inherited just the Titans' thrones. We'd inherited their responsibilities, as well. And whether or not we were ready for it, the world was waiting for us. Humanity was depending on us to get it right.
Lightning lit up the sky, followed by a symphony of thunder, and I snapped out of my reverie. My youngest brother let out a giant whoop that echoed for miles. "Try to beat that," said Zeus, elbowing my middle brother, Poseidon.
Poseidon scoffed. "That's nothing. Watch this." And with a wave of his hand, the sea below us roared to life, swirling ominously and creating shapes and shadows that danced across the water. Rushing forward, the waves crashed against the cliff we stood on, shaking the very earth.
"Not bad," said Zeus. "But I've seen better."
Before I could blink, Poseidon tackled him to the ground, and the pair of them proceeded to spend the next several minutes trying to pin each other down. If humanity was depending on us to get it right, they were in for several eons of disappointment.
"Don't look so sour, Hera," said Demeter, my sister. She stood beside me, a smile playing on her lips as she watched our brothers wrestle. How she could find amusement in their lack of maturity baffled me.
"Humanity's going to crumble in a matter of weeks at this point," I said. "They need guidance. Protection. Order and help in establishing a life without the Titans' tyranny. Our brothers are not fit to rule."
"We are," said Hestia from the other side of Demeter. Both of my sisters watched them with their heads held high, and they looked every inch the queens the world needed. "As is Hades. Zeus and Poseidon will grow up soon enough, I suspect.
"Never!" cried Zeus, and his booming laughter echoed across the ocean as he managed to gain the upper hand in their wrestling match.
"See?" I gave my sisters a pointed look. "We're doomed."
"I wouldn't go quite that far yet." Our eldest brother, Hades, stepped beside me, his dark hair whipping across his face in the wind. He offered me a small smile, and his eyes glittered with intelligence. Something our other brothers sorely lacked. "You did well, sister. If it hadn't been for you, we would've never succeeded."
My cheeks grew warm. "You're too kind," I said with false humility. I knew as well as he did that by breaking the bonds of the Titans' loyalty to one another, I'd cinched our victory. But the war was over now, and the six of us were a unit that not even I could break. United we had proven to be stronger than even our father, and if we were to have any chance of success, we had to remain that way.
"Hardly. I dare say you should be ruling us all," said Hades.
On the ground, Zeus sat up and shoved Poseidon off him. "Hera, Queen of the Gods?" He chuckled and gave me an enormous wink. "Maybe if she had a king."
He was lucky I was exhausted and weary after battle, else I would've made sure he never had the chance to wink at me or any other girl again. "Are you saying a woman can't rule?" I said.
"I'm saying it would never work." Zeus stood again, offering Poseidon a hand. Once they were both on their feet, they shoved each other playfully and made their way over to the rest of us. "Humanity is used to a king, and Rhea never exercised her rights as queen. They need a leader right now, not a mother."
"I could be a leader," I snapped, and hot anger filled me. Zeus knew never to bring up our mother. The loss of her presence was still too fresh. "I would make a damn good one."
Zeus shrugged and raked his fingers through his golden hair. "Maybe so, but I was the one who led us all to victory. We can all be kings and queens in our own rights, and there's plenty for us to rule over. But as far as a supreme leader goes"
"Hera won the war for us," said Hades in that quiet, measured voice of his. How he was able to stay so calm in the face of blatant arrogance baffled me. Zeus might have been responsible for the majority of the brute force against the Titans, but he was no more powerful than the rest of us. And he was the youngest and by far the least ready to handle the responsibilities of leadership.
"We all won the war," said Demeter. "We will all rule together, as a council. We will all have equal say, and we will all listen to and respect one another. It is the only way we will not fall victim to revolt, as the Titans did." She squeezed my hand. "Is that acceptable to you, Hera?"
As if I had any real say. But all five of my siblings watched me, waiting for me to yield, and I had little choice. I would not be the one to cut the ties that bound us together.
"As long as it is an equal rule, I can accept that," I said. At least that way the chances of Zeus and Poseidon wreaking havoc were considerably diminished.
Zeus grinned boyishly. "Then it's settled. Let's draw lots for the kingdoms."
"The kingdoms?" I said. "But there are only three."
"Yes," said Zeus with mock patience, as if I were a child who had to be spoken to slowly in order to grasp anything. "Like I said, humanity would never follow a queen."
The edges of my vision turned red, and I clenched my jaw so tightly that I could have shattered diamond between my teeth. But Zeus went on as if he didn't notice, and three gray pebbles appeared in his hand. "Poseidon," he said with a grand bow, as if he were doing him a favor, letting him draw first.
Poseidon narrowed his eyes and touched each of the three stones in turn. "I know which domain you want," he said.
"And you know which domain I want. So why don't you just tell me which one to pick?"
Zeus scoffed. "Where would be the fun in that?" But the middle stone began to glow, and Poseidon snatched it up. As he held it in his palm, a great crash of sea against rock echoed around us, and the stone exploded into a rush of water.
Poseidon grinned. "Perfect."
"Thought you might like that." Zeus turned to Hades next and offered him the remaining stones. "Brother."
Hades eyed him for a long moment, and it wasn't difficult to see what was going on underneath his mask of neutrality. Allowing Zeus to have the sky domain and ultimate rule over the living was dangerous at best. Zeus wasn't ready for it, but if this council was truly to be, then perhaps we could all temper him. Then again, forcing Zeus into the Underworld to mingle with the dead would kill the light inside him, the same light that had rallied us even when we thought all was lost. Zeus wasn't meant to remain among the dead. It simply wasn't his place in the world, and we all knew it. But that didn't mean he was ready to rule.
Without breaking his stare, Hades picked up one of the remaining pebbles and cradled it in his palm. I held my breath, and at last the stone burst into flame, an unexpected light in the dark. The Underworld. Of course Hades would sacrifice himself for our brother's happiness.
Before anyone could react, I snatched the third pebble from Zeus's hand, closing my fist around it. "I will rule the skies," I said. "When you are ready and have proven yourself worthy of kingship, then you may have this stone back."
"Hera" started Demeter, but Zeus interrupted her.
"Is that what you want? Further anarchy and pain for humanity?" He drew himself up to his full height, thunder rumbling around him. In that moment, a flash of our father appeared on his face, and I took a step back. "You condemn us to another war if you insist on not allowing me my rightful place."
"Why is it your rightful place and not mine? Because of my sex?" I spat, sounding far more courageous than I felt in the face of my brother's crackling power. Though mine easily rivaled his, it was quiet, understated, the sort you didn't know was there until it was too late. I could never display my power in such an intimidating manner.
"Yes," said Zeus without preamble. "Because you had the misfortune of being made in our mother's image, and our mother chose to defer to our father. Because that is the example the Titans set for not only us, but for the world, and we must maintain some order. You will be a queen if you wish, Hera, but only second to one of us."
No one challenged him. No one spoke to support me. And as those eternal seconds passed, hatred unlike anything I had ever felt before burned within me. Not even for Cronus had I felt such disgust. "I will prove you wrong someday," I snarled. "And when that day comes, you will be cast out and fed to the wolves. Do not say I did not warn you."
Turning on my heel, I stormed off toward the center of the island. It would be a beautiful place to live if not for the scar of healing earth that led straight into the Underworld, where Cronus and the other Titans now resided. Perhaps it wasn't such a terrible thing that Hades had given up Olympus, after all. At least he could be trusted not to let Cronus escape from the depths of Tartarus.
"Hera!" called Zeus. "Don't be that way."
I ignored him. If he didn't want me there, then I wouldn't be there. But soon enough I heard footsteps behind me, and as they grew closer, I stopped and whirled around. "Can't you take a"
I stopped. It was Hades, not Zeus, who followed me. In the darkness, he looked far too much like our father for my comfort, but we were all used to it by now. He could change his form, as the rest of us could, but I had no doubt he would keep his natural appearance, determined not to let Cronus dictate who and what he was.
"I am sorry for Zeus," said Hades quietly. "You do not deserve to be spoken to in such a manner."
I swallowed and held my head high. I wouldn't let Zeus get to me. He wasn't worth it. "I won't be anyone's second. I'm better than that. We all are."
He managed a faint smile. "You could never be anyone's second, because that would imply someone was more deserving than you. Never doubt that you are the reason we have won, Hera. You are our true power, and we all know it. It is simply difficult for some of us to acknowledge our own lacking."
A pause, and I deflated. "He'll ruin us."
"Maybe," he allowed. "Maybe not. Time will tell."
"I won't rule at his side."
"I do not blame you." He touched my shoulder. "You deserve better than how he would treat you."
Something tingled down my spine, and his hand felt warm and heavy against my skin. "I could go into the Underworld with you," I said. "You will need someone to help you sort through the souls."
For a split second, his understanding smile changed to one of pity, and I bristled. But before I could react, he said kindly, "Nothing would please me more. As much as I would enjoy your company, however, the Underworld would not suit you. I am fine with the darkness and the quiet, but you, sister, would wither without light. And I cannot do that to you."
"You don't know that for sure," I said. "It would be worth the isolation if I didn't have to be near Zeus."
He chuckled softly. "As I said, I do not blame you. But something better will come along, and in the meantime, you will have an equal voice on this council."
"What if that isn't enough? What if Zeus still finds a way to take over?"
"Then we will deal with that as it happens," said Hades. "I am on your side."
At least someone was. "You're sure I can't come with you?"
He pressed his lips to my forehead. "I would never forgive myself for what that place would do to you. But I will come visit you often, and I promise you will never be alone."
His words warmed me from the inside out, quelling the last of my frustration. "Why do you have to be so good, Hades? Why can't you be more like Poseidon and Zeus? It'd be easier to insist the lot of you weren't fit to rule."
He squeezed my shoulder. "Because if I were, we would be warring amongst ourselves, and we all know what would happen then. Go back to Olympus, Hera. Rest. I will see you soon, and in the meantime, try not to let Zeus get to you. He's overwhelmed with victory and relief, and that does strange things to men."
"He's not a man," I said. "He's a god."
"Then we can expect this to last much longer than it otherwise would." He embraced me for a brief moment before letting me go. "Do not forget your worth."
With that, he turned and walked toward the sealed crack in the earth, his footsteps leaving no trace in the dirt. I watched him disappear until darkness consumed him, and once he was gone, I took a shaky breath and returned to the others. I would never follow Zeus, but as long as Hades was there to introduce reason, perhaps this new life wouldn't be so bad, after all.