There had once been Nine Hopes.
They had been more than people and yet somehow less; they had been above the bustle and yet below it; they had been the absolute core of civilization and that which it aspired to above all else.
The first Hope to be lost had died in a long and ragged storm that ravaged the coast and destroyed cities. With it went the whisper of the peaceful sea god. With it went the trade treaties that had nearly been signed. With it went thousands of lives.
The second died slowly, a wasting disease that took out a third of the country’s old and weak – wise and knowledgeable – skilled and clever. With it went history and solidity.
The third and fourth Hope to go slipped away in the night. Nobody was quite sure if they’d died or not. Nobody really wanted to know. The sunshine was a little less bright, the spring a little less pleasant, the winter a little more frightening. There were rats in the grain silos and mice in the attics.
And so they went, over a millennium. Civilization held on as long as it could, but eventually they had nothing to hold on to. The last hope died in a blaze of firebombs and the screaming of civilians. The last Hope fell to ashes along with the biggest known city. And people – and what was left of civilization – fell into ruins and screaming, hated and despair. Hopes had been at the core of their civilization and all they strived for, and now they were gone.
Three hundred years of ragged horror passed. Three hundred years of misery. Three hundred years of death and disease and hatred and bigotry.
And then, in the light of a particularly early and bright spring, the Third Hope, thought to be dead at sea or missing, thought to have abandoned civilization or been murdered in its bed, the Prodigal Hope appeared on the shore.
It walked like a woman who was ancient, like a man who had been brutalized. It walked like it was starving, like it had not had a drink in days.
And because it was more and less than a person, a poor child saw it walking and gave it half of her bread. Because it looked apart from the bustle, a rich teenager brought it into her home and gave it water, a bath, new clothing.
Because it was what everyone aspired to and what was somewhere in everyone’s heart, a politician gave it a home.
And because it was the prodigal returned, the father of hope killed the fatted calf, at least metaphorically, and threw the best feast their poor society could manage.
They had very little, this long after their collapse. But once again they had Hope.