Sylvanas had her own opinions about the Magister but she tended to keep them to herself. Especially in situations like these.
“I just don’t know that it wouldn’t be advantageous to have me escort you as opposed to Lady Liadrin,” His voice was silky and smooth yet it grated at Sylvanas’s ears like tree bark against her skin. “You know their kind are used to putting much more stock than is necessary into male presence.”
“Well, that’s something they are going to have to get used to about us, isn’t it? Our lack of need for constant male presence?” Lireesa asked with a faint tilt of her head. Her voice was measured and emotionless. As emotionless as the mask she’d schooled her expression into. Time and time again. For millennia. "How ludicrous."
“You’re right, of course,” Dar’Khan responded with a soft smile that Lireesa seemed to accept as a sign of defeat. “I only thought I would offer one last time.”
“Your concern is appreciated. Your timing is not. I was just about to speak with my daughter when you came,” Again, her voice was even and intonated with something Dar’Khan easily recognized as dismissal after all these years.
“Of course, my Queen. I will be there to open your portal as promised,” He bowed his way out of the room graciously, and Lireesa’s eyes followed him all the while.
Sylvanas still just observed. She had never stopped learning from her mother. Her mannerisms. Her masks. When it was and wasn’t appropriate to wear them. These were important pieces of information. Now, more than ever, with their truce with the humans soon to be solidified.
As impenetrable as the mask had been, it slipped away the moment the door latched behind her mother’s advisor. Her eyes were soft and kind as they turned to regard Sylvanas where they had been anything but only a moment ago.
Her smile was so warm. As warm as it always had been for those deigned worthy of seeing it.
Sylvanas had always been worthy. As all of her children had. She returned the smile easily, and Lireesa gestured towards the little table they’d been meant to share for breakfast before Dar’Khan had interrupted their morning.
“Sit with me,” Lireesa offered. “I had your favorites brought up.”
That was true enough, Sylvanas found as she sat across from her mother and looked at their breakfast fare. Cured fish, fresh cut figs, and a slender loaf of bread that smelled as if it had only just been baked. It likely had. And mana wine, of course. Always that.
“Thank you,” Sylvanas’s response was quiet, and Lireesa regarded her more closely as a result.
“You wanted to speak with me because you are anxious,” Lireesa observed, pouring her daughter a glass of wine as her smile faded slightly.
Sylvanas looked over her shoulder at the parlor beyond. At the beautiful ways the still-rising sun cast the colors of the magnificently stained glass that lined the walls all across the room. The white marble of the floors and the columns was a beautiful canvas.
“I am,” She admitted with a faint nod, biting her lower lip as she reached for her wine glass and pulled it closer. “I wish there were another way, I suppose. You know my feelings on the matter. I find it so disgusting they would give their own daughter as a peace offering. As though a woman could ever be a piece of property. A bargaining chip.”
Lireesa clenched her jaw for a moment because she agreed whole-heartedly. Vehemently.
“It is necessary, darling girl, for us to accept their offer. I’ve put off her coming for years.”
Sylvanas scoffed and finally took a deep sip of her drink before placing her glass back down and plucking a quarter of fig from the serving platter between them. “I know. And I find that even more despicable. How old was she then, hm? When they first began correspondence?”
Lireesa’s eyes narrowed momentarily. The thought alone put a bad taste in her mouth. “Sixteen.”
Sylvanas’s ear flicked in annoyance.
“She is of age, Sylvanas. Had she not been promised to you she’d likely have gone to some nobleman even sooner than that.”
“The thought makes me ill,” Sylvanas said, her voice soft so as to mask the emotion in it. Even from her own mother.
She had learned well.
“I know you will be kind to her, Sylvanas. I know you will make her life here a much better life than any she might have had with her own people. You must remember how fleeting they are. The humans. At her age, she might have seventy years at best. We’ve no idea if the Sunwell will help her. We don’t even know if it will hurt her, though I doubt it could.”
“Mm, and what if I fall for her? What if I cherish her the way I might have cherished a wife of my own choosing? How attractive - the thought of spending an eternity in mourning.”
“You’re being difficult,” Lireesa admonished, and Sylvanas had no argument to the contrary. She knew she was.
“Perhaps. I feel I might not be so trepidatious about this entire ordeal were I to meet her before-hand,” Another fig met its end, then, and Lireesa sighed.
“That is simply not acceptable to them. It’s as though they think you’ll see her and change your mind, though I know that it’s deeply rooted in tradition. At least, I hope it isn’t so shallow as that.”
“As though I would be capable of such shallowness,” Sylvanas muttered, and Lireesa chuckled.
“I know your taste in women is boundless in its variety. You needn’t remind me. They aren’t accustomed to that, perhaps. The thought of caring for more than one’s looks,” Lireesa was satisfied that Sylvanas wasn’t too close to being on the verge of emotional collapse to eat, at last.
Seeing Lireesa a little more at ease soothed Sylvanas as well, and they shared much of their breakfast in the comfort of silence and the warmth of the sun filtering into the room.
It was so peaceful, in fact, that Lireesa’s eyes darted up in surprise when Sylvanas finally spoke.
“Will you tell me about her when you get back?”
Lireesa let out a soft breath of amusement, but the smile that followed softened any indignation the sound might have caused.
“Of course, I will. I put no stake in their strange traditions. If I could have this my way, you would meet and fall for each other naturally as you fall for most women.”
“I feel as though I'm being treated unfairly this morning,” Sylvanas observed dryly, and her mother looked at her for a while in response.
She was proud of her daughter, truly. Proud of her for the brilliant military mind that she was. Proud of her for the way she held herself. She just often wondered if she'd instilled too much of herself in Sylvanas.
“I will ask questions that would be important to you, Sylvanas. Find out things you would very much like to know. I can't give you many more reassurances than that without having first met her.”
Sylvanas sighed and nodded her understanding, and Lireesa reached across the table to take her daughter’s hand in her own. Which of their hands was more worn and calloused, Lireesa couldn't be sure. She stroked along Sylvanas’s knuckles soothingly nonetheless.
“I have no doubt in my mind you will make this work. As infuriating as you are, your heart is kind and pure in a way mine never was and never will be,” Lireesa said quietly, and Sylvanas’s ears wilted slightly as she looked at her mother. “For that, I am forever thankful and proud.”
There was nothing Sylvanas could say to argue with that. Lireesa was not pure. Not kind, either, in any sense of the word. Not to anyone save for her children and a very select few others. It was a luxury she couldn't afford.
It was the cross she had to bear. A weight meant only for her shoulders. Sylvanas had long ago accepted that.
“Thank you, Mother,” She said with a very faint smile, and Lireesa nodded softly and slowly released her hand.
“Of course. Now, I believe you have many more appointments with your clothier over the next few days, yes? You should go see to at least one of those this morning. He's been giving my messengers fits over your absence when he has a near-full wardrobe to complete for you before the wedding.”
Sylvanas sighed softly and rose to her feet, yet even as loathe as she was to go have her measurements taken for the dozen time, she leaned over and placed a kiss to the top of her mother’s head and stayed there for the grip on her shoulder that always came next. Because Lireesa liked to hold on to these little moments.
“Safe travels,” Sylvanas said in a gentle tone when she finally pulled away.
“I am always safe,” Lireesa responded with a smirk, and Sylvanas looked wryly at the scar across her mother’s brow and the chips in her ears. She wondered what the humans would think of their Queen - battle-scarred as she was.
“Of course, Mother,” Sylvanas humored her before they parted ways, as she so often did.
Including her mother, who was fussing over her vicariously through the servant currently braiding her hair as carefully and meticulously as she always did. To her mother’s credit, though, today really was an important day.
Today, they were receiving visitors. For the first time in her life, Jaina was going to meet an elf. Fortunate, considering she would be marrying one in less than a month’s time.
“My hair is fine,” Jaina’s voice was quiet and deceptively calm-sounding as she shut her book and reached up to give the servant’s hand a gentle nudge and a squeeze as though to soften the blow of being dismissed. “Thank you, Isabelle.”
Jaina would never offend her, or any of the women who really kept things running around here, really. They were the only ones that didn’t look at her like she’d grown horns.
“Of course, Lady Jaina,”
Isabelle gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze and avoided Katherine’s gaze entirely as she slipped out of the room.
Jaina would have avoided her, too, had she not been utterly unavoidable for the past few weeks. Funny, considering how little her mother had had to do with her for a great majority of her life.
“They’ll be here soon, you know,” Katherine stated the obvious as she was apt to do, and Jaina looked into the mirror to respond because that wasn’t quite as anxiety-inducing as looking directly at her.
“I know,” Jaina tapped her fingertips against her book. An old, worn volume on the language of Elves. It had been new when she’d received it many years ago. It was almost falling apart, now. “You seem as though you are having a more difficult time of dealing with this than I am, Mother. I can’t imagine you’re going to miss me. What is it, then?”
Katherine sighed heavily and turned her attention away from her daughter, clearly frustrated and doing nothing to hide it.
“Don’t be this way, Jaina. It isn’t necessary. I just hope you’ll behave yourself.”
“I’m a grown woman, Mother. Set to meet the envoy of my future Lord this morning. You needn’t remind me to behave myself,” Jaina, unlike her mother, hadn’t turned her gaze away. She saw a flash of some emotion - maybe guilt, maybe agitation. Likely in response to the aforementioned guilt.
Jaina didn’t feel much sympathy, but she did finally release Katherine from her own scrutiny. It wasn’t that Jaina was actually a danger despite how even her own mother squirmed under her attention. No, the soft undercurrent of power that fizzled just before it made itself known wasn’t a threat, in Jaina’s opinion. It was just something different about her. It always had been.
Sure, there had been a mishap or two. A frozen handpie here, a scorch mark on a stone wall there. But she’d never hurt anyone. She would never.
Yet, here they were. Here they had been. For years.
Jaina probably should’ve been terrified of leaving behind everything she’d ever known. She probably should have had a healthy fear of their Northerly neighbors and all of their ageless, mystical power.
But the only thing Jaina was scared of, really, was the possibility she might lose her lifeline out of this place. Sure, she had the treaty riding on her shoulders. The possibility of lasting peace between her own people and a people they all believed could simply remove them from this world like a splinter in their heel.
From time to time, however, Jaina allowed herself to be selfish.
And damnit, she wanted out.
Her thoughts stalled to a halt when the hairs of her arms rose as she was overcome by the strangest feeling.
“Mother...when are they arriving?”
“Not for an hour, at least,” Katherine explained, now standing up across the room to examine her own hair and clothing in a mirror being held up for her. Jaina wasn’t sure how her mother could even see herself, it was always so dark here in her rooms with no outer walls that might let a little sunlight in.
“Why do you ask, Jaina?”
Before Jaina could even dismiss the odd sensation she was pushing back down where it had risen in her chest, it amplified. Doubled over itself and crashed down over her so fiercely she felt breathless.
It was only a moment later that footsteps echoed down the hallway to her chambers. The frantic footsteps of a sprinting page who burst through her door with the only excuse for such an intrusion Katherine might ever deign valid.
“My Ladies, they’re...the...you should come to the Great Hall. They came through a...a...I don’t know. Some type of…”
“A portal,” Jaina said, unsure which squirreled away, forbidden book she’d pulled that word from. She only knew she was right. “They used portal magic.”
“Well. Whatever it was, it’s caused quite a disturbance. Please come. At haste. Lord Greymane is with them, now. And he’s…”
“Terrible at such things, of course,” Katherine said, her natural propensity for getting a handle on out-of-control situations rearing its head as it always did. She wasn’t even certain why she’d allowed herself to be talked into having him attend such a pivotal visit. Perhaps she was losing her edge. “Jaina, come.”
They were halfway down the hallway by the time Jaina finally gathered her thoughts and steeled herself, expecting to round the corner to the sight of some exotic entourage of power. At least enough to fill half a banquet table, if her past experiences with such envoys the minor human Lords sent from the outer edges of their kingdom for trade arrangements and tributes were anything to go by.
It was only natural she was rather taken aback by the sight of two women being fawned over by overly-eager attendees of their Court. One of them in armor finer than anything Jaina had ever seen - her hair a blaze of red - her tabard of fine silk adorned with a symbol Jaina didn’t recognize despite all of her studies.
The other woman, however, was nigh indescribable. Smaller than the lady knight that Jaina could only assume was her escort. Yet there was something about her that seemed to command the focus of the entirety of the Great Hall and all of its occupants. Jaina didn’t recognize any of the symbols of power she wore. The fine silver circlet that rested above her brow could’ve meant anything. Her dress, the same. Black as night and cut to expose her broad, strong shoulders.
Jaina couldn’t imagine being allowed to wear a dress like that. To expose so much of herself. Perhaps that’s why she seemed so powerful. That, or the bright, almost white-blue glow of her eyes that shone like steel. It might have even been the very faint curve of her lips. Easy and sure as she inspected the people around her. Unbothered.
Jaina wondered if this woman was pleased with herself for throwing a wrench in their plans. For ruining all the carefully plotted acts. The announcements and the peacockery that Jaina hated so much.
She hoped so.
At least, until those steely eyes landed on her from across the room not a moment after she’d entered it. Jaina had no idea how she’d been spotted so easily. So quickly.
To Lireesa, she was a beacon. A sun in a room full of dead or dying stars.
The little curve on the lips of the woman now watching her shifted into a smile, then. A slow, easy smile that faded a moment later when the greying man in front of her seemed to demand more of her attention.
Of course, it would be Greymane trying to have her ear. Who else?
It didn’t take too terribly long for everyone to realize both Katherine and Jaina had entered the fray. The sea of fawners parted immediately for Katherine’s stately presence and equally stately approach. Her chin was lifted unnecessarily high. She had at least a head of height on the darker-haired elf. Slightly less on her knight, yet still, Katherine looked as ridiculous to Jaina as any of the others in attendance did.
Katherine held out her hand.
The dark-haired woman glanced at it.
“I would be more than pleased to introduce you both to Lady Katherine Proudmoore,” Greymane announced with great pride - speaking in a volume that suggested he wasn’t entirely sure these women would understand him.
Jaina could have sworn she saw the lady knight smirk from across the room. She could have sworn.
“We both appreciate your introduction, I’m certain, Lord Greymane” Liadrin responded, taking Katherine’s hand to spare her the embarrassment of her misplaced gesture going ignored. She inclined her head to Katherine only slightly before she continued speaking.
“I am Lady Liadrin. Knight-escort of the Queen of the North.”
Katherine looked stricken. The entire room fell utterly silent.
“Lady Lireesa, if you please,” said the dark-haired elf, easily adopting terminology those surrounding them might better understand much like Liadrin had. “It is lovely to meet you after all these years. I am here primarily, however, for the Lady Jaina.”
Her voice sounded like the steel her eyes seemed to be forged of. It cut through everything. It left no one in the room with any doubt as to who this might be. As to the power that might lie beneath the simple circlet she wore.
“Of course,” Katherine responded with an overly polite smile as those around her floundered visibly for something to do or say. Most of them settled, inevitably, for wandering towards the edges of the Hall and the warmth of the grand fireplaces that lined it. Even Greymane seemed inclined to shy away from them. Or, more specifically, from Lireesa. “I’ll send for her at once.”
“No need, is there?” Lireesa asked with a faint tilt of her head. “Is she not right over there?”
Perhaps Katherine had forgotten her daughter had walked in with her.
Again, she looked as though a rug had been pulled out from under her feet. There was also no small amount of confusion about her in regards to how, exactly, Lireesa had recognized her daughter.
Jaina moved forward because there was only so much second-hand embarrassment she could take on her mother’s behalf, and because she was sure this would all somehow be her fault when it came down to it.
Lireesa’s entire demeanor seemed to shift in her presence. There was a smile again. Captivating. Disarming. But Jaina knew better than to think there was some type of magic being worked on her. She knew that better than anyone in the room save for their visitors.
“Lady Lireesa,” Jaina greeted in an even, pleasant tone. “It's so good to meet you.”
“And it is very good indeed to meet you, as well,” Lireesa said, and Jaina smiled. A smile that she meant. For the first time in a long time.
Jaina was almost taken aback by Lireesa’s conspiratorial tone. This was the first thing Lireesa had said to her since her mother had paired off with Liadrin for a similar stroll at Lireesa’s urging.
“Whatever you wish to tell me, Lady Lireesa, I wish to learn.”
Lireesa hummed in the back of her throat and brushed her hand along the top of the hedge that lined their path.
“Lady Liadrin is bored out of her skull right now,” Lireesa said in a tone that suggested this fact very much amused her. “And I will get an earful about it when we arrive home. About cold, mucky gardens and how she despises politics. I do so love to keep her on her toes.”
Jaina didn't know how to respond at first. She didn't know if there was a proper way to do so. She simply smiled quietly to herself as Lireesa watched from the corner of her eye.
“You have a lovely smile, Jaina,” Lireesa complimented as she looked away. She found this garden, like all gardens, peaceful despite its lack of imagination. The cold didn't bother her nearly as much as it did Liadrin despite the fact that she wasn't at all dressed for winter. Jaina wondered about that as they kept walking.
“You are quiet, though,” Lireesa mused. “But I see the sharpness in your eyes. Is it customary, then? That you not speak?”
“Many things are customary,” Jaina responded as she held her own hands behind her back and watched the cobbled stones of the walkway pass beneath her slippered feet. She tried not to look at Lireesa overly much. She really did. But she was curious by her very nature, and there were so many things about Lireesa that drew every ounce of that curiosity out of her. “You speak our language as though you always have.”
“I have spoken your language since your kingdom was stick and stone and mud, Jaina. As such, your customs mean little to me. Particularly the ones that would make you wary of speaking to your betrothed’s mother. You seem the type of young woman who has so many thoughts in her head. What a shame to lock them all away.”
Jaina hadn't ever really been spoken to like this. Like an equal. And by this woman in particular, no less.
“I believe my people and my family think what is in my head is dangerous,” Jaina responded, wondering if she shouldn't have said that almost the moment the words fell from her lips.
“Magic,” Lireesa said the word, and Jaina looked over at her almost searchingly to find her looking right back.
“Yes, My Lady.”
“A gift,” Lireesa looked almost pleased when she said it. “And in you, a surprisingly strong one. I saw you without seeing you the moment you walked into that room. A fleck of brilliance among the brown and grey. There are countless competent teachers of its art in your future kingdom. In Quel’Thalas.”
“It hadn't occurred to me that I might learn how to...well. I suppose a lot of things have likely never occurred to me.”
“You will do whatever you wish, Jaina. Study whatever you wish. Have whatever passions you wish to have. I wanted to meet you almost solely to reassure you of all this.”
Jaina nodded her understanding because the very idea of all this was almost profound to her. Marriage seemed such a minuscule sacrifice for such freedom. Such opportunity.
“You call to mind the image of a songbird in a cage, Jaina. One who has lost her melody. The thing about songbirds is that all you need do to return their voice to them is open the door. They will do the rest all on their own.”
The longer they spoke, the more Jaina grew familiar with the delicate, lilting accent of Lireesa’s speech. The more she found it as captivating as the woman it came from.
“Most women of my status hardly have the door opened for them in such a way. Most are simply transferred to another cage.”
Jaina sounded to Lireesa so much older than her years, then. She couldn't imagine such a fate.
“No cages for you, Jaina. We do not believe in such things where I come from. You need never fear such a fate befalling you.”
For the first time since their walk began, Jaina heard a subtle change in Lireesa's tone. She looked over at her questioningly and saw an almost alarming darkness in her eyes before her expression softened into something apologetic.
“Forgive me, Jaina. I don't mean to pass judgment. It is only that I think such things are utterly vile,”
Jaina smiled again then. A little laugh bubbled in her throat.
A lovely laugh, Lireesa thought.
“That was an interesting apology,” Jaina observed, and Lireesa’s eyes glinted with something akin to mischief.
“Perhaps because I am not at all sorry,” Lireesa offered, and Jaina’s face brightened again.
It was inevitable that they would run into Katherine and Lady Liadrin again sooner or later. Unfortunately, in Jaina’s opinion, it was sooner. That was an opinion Liadrin didn't appear to share if her stiff shoulders and the almost imperceptible narrowing of her eyes in Lireesa’s direction were anything to go by.
“Did you enjoy your walk?” Lireesa asked, ignoring the would-be glare in favor of smiling at her.
“Oh, very much so,” Liadrin remarked. “Lady Katherine was just telling me about the rarity of the particular kind of hedge required to make these inventive archways.”
Lireesa thought of their mage-lit, wondrous gardens at home, and her smile widened into something only Liadrin recognized as the smile of a woman who was having far too much fun considering the circumstances.
“Oh?” Lireesa asked before turning her attention to Katherine. “Are they particularly hard to come by?”
By the time Katherine was done talking about the hedges again, it was apparent even to Jaina that Liadrin wanted very much to disappear inside of her very impressive armor.
Jaina had so enjoyed the company she'd been keeping that morning that she was almost morose when they began to part ways. Katherine was unconcerned. She was far more worried about changing for the day's feast than she was about hedges, now.
Lireesa smiled at Katherine faintly in acknowledgment when she took her leave after promising a page would be sent soon thereafter to take them to freshen up.
“I'll wait with you,” Jaina offered quietly as she looked away from the retreating form of her mother to Liadrin and Lireesa instead. “All of these halls look the same. I wouldn't want to leave you in them.”
“That won't be necessary, though your offer is very kind and much appreciated. I would much rather walk you to your rooms and find Liadrin once I have. You needn't worry about either of us getting lost.”
Jaina wasn't sure that was the proper thing to do. All she knew was that any chance to spend more time in the presence of Lireesa was a chance she couldn't pass up.
Unfortunately, the walk was a short one. Just two turns and Jaina was coming to a stop outside her chamber doors.
Lireesa recognized the look on her face, of course. The reluctance there mingled with apprehension. And now that they were alone, she took Jaina’s hand in her own and gave it a gentle squeeze.
“This is not your fate, Jaina. Cages and hedges and wordy men to speak for you as though you cannot speak for yourself,” Lireesa said quietly. Far too quietly for anyone but Jaina to hear. “And this is only the first of many, many walks and just as many talks we will share. This, I can promise you.”
Jaina looked to find the gentleness from earlier had returned to Lireesa’s features. Sharp and scarred though they were, they were equally as soft when Jaina met and held her gaze rather fearlessly.
“I only hope you are pleased with me and with your choice,” Jaina said as she slowly let her hand slip away from Lireesa’s.
“I am so very pleased, Jaina. Make no mistake about that.”
Lireesa felt a faint flux in the magic Jaina held inside herself like chained lightning, and she let out a soft, breathy sound. An almost-laugh, yet nothing belittling. There wasn't a whole lot about Lireesa that Jaina didn't find surprisingly comforting, actually.
“And we will help you with that, as well.”
“You see so much?” Jaina asked, her brows furrowing as she reigned herself in as best she could without truly knowing how.
“I feel,” Lireesa corrected gently. “As you will someday learn to do as well.”
“When you arrived earlier, it felt as though something quite large perched itself upon my chest,” Jaina admitted this as though it were a secret. But then, she was very used to keeping such things a secret. “I've never been near anything like it before, but I guessed what it was. I have a few books. I keep them under my bed.”
“Portal magic is rather volatile. Anyone who is sensitive to it would feel it from quite some distance. But I'm guessing you may have known that?”
“I read it once or twice. Or a dozen,” Jaina offered almost sheepishly. “Something like that.”
Lireesa’s smile was more than enough reward, to Jaina, for her honesty, yet Lireesa wasn't stopping at merely a smile.
“There are entire libraries in our capitol city devoted to magic. Two in the palace alone. And you needn't hide any book you may find in them under your bed.”
As much as Jaina wanted to linger, she knew all too well if she wasn't changed and ready before her mother returned she would be in for an earful, and Lireesa - ever perceptive - gathered as much when Jaina shifted ever so slightly towards her door.
“This all sounds too good to be true,” Jaina admitted.
“It's all quite true, Jaina. You'll see soon enough. For now, I fear I must go find my noble escort lest she get caught up in another conversation revolving around horticulture. It's simply not her strong suit.”
Once Lireesa had her smiling again, she seemed satisfied to leave and rescue Liadrin from any would-be garden enthusiasts, and Jaina slipped into her room riding higher than she likely ever had. She'd nearly forgotten how she'd feared she might ask Lireesa about her betrothed. That much, at least, Jaina had managed to refrain from. She needed no reminders that the elves offered infinitely more than her own kingdom could offer in return. To seem choosy in any regard wasn't something Jaina could allow herself.
Besides, Jaina wasn't feeling particularly choosy, anyway. No matter who it was she would be marrying, she believed Lireesa and all the promises that had been made simply because Lireesa needn't have promised anything at all. And any one of those promises was more than Jaina ever could have hoped for here.