Lireesa’s eyes blazed as she turned on her heel to face the direction that voice had come from. Liadrin’s voice. Hoarse from shouting orders and from days without proper food and drink.
It had all come down to this moment, hadn't it?
Lireesa sheathed her sword slowly as she watched Liadrin cut down yet another foe.
“Call the retreat,” Lireesa responded, her sharp eyes surveying the battlefield beneath the ridge they were ascending. “Now!”
Liadrin faltered with her hand near the horn at her hip, and she stared at Lireesa as snow fell against her hair and her armor - mottling the darkness of it with white.
“That was an order! I will call it myself!” Lireesa’s eyes blazed with the power that echoed in her voice, and Liadrin nearly stumbled back from the force of it.
The horn was blown. The path they'd cut up the ridge for just this purpose became a stampede of elven warriors.
Lireesa stayed atop the ridge watching the trolls give chase. Far too slowly. Elves were much faster. Much nimbler.
Except for their wounded. Still struggling in the snow. Helpless.
“So many,” Lireesa whispered as the din of battle slowly faded to the back of her senses. Her vision ran as red as the bloodied snow beneath the fallen of her army.
So many, she thought, as she lifted a hand slowly towards the sky.
Too many, she thought, as the winter wind whipped her cloak around her body just before she called the fire. Just before the valley was engulfed in a storm of flame.
That was the thing about fire. It didn't pick and choose. It had no empathy. No self-control. Only hunger.
The screams of her own people pulled her back as they burned. Back into reality. Into the harshness and the coldness of it as snow and bodies alike sizzled in the wake of her destruction. Her own clothing was smoking from the heat of it. The skin of her face - blistering. She could hear Liadrin leading what remained of their army higher up the ridge.
She called the fire back into herself, then. And the sight of what she'd left in the aftermath burned into her vision with a fierceness even her own magic would never match.
Nothing remained of the last great troll army.
Just as nothing remained of those that hadn't been able to heed the call of Liadrin’s horn.
Liadrin hung back near the smoldering hearth of the queen’s parlor. She'd only walked in a moment earlier, and might have left just as quickly when she found Lireesa sleeping in her sitting chair with a book laying across her lap. She might have, if Lireesa weren't breathing in a way that was almost frantic in the dying light of the coals of the fireplace.
With a murmur and a wave of her hand, Liadrin activated the mage lights around the room, but only dimly, and moved forward to kneel by Lireesa’s chair.
Even now, she was careful of waking her from a dream, or from a nightmare, whatever the case might have been. She was always careful of alarming Lireesa. And the only way, really, to catch her off-guard was to wake her when she was sleeping heavily. A dangerous venture, indeed.
“Lireesa?” Liadrin carefully placed a gloved hand near Lireesa’s where it lay on the arm of her chair, and even that small intrusion was enough for Lireesa’s eyes to snap open.
The glowing coals nearby reflected in them strangely. Harkening to a time long past. The sight sent a chill up Liadrin’s spine.
“Forgive me for waking you,” Liadrin said quietly, removing her hand from the chair. She stayed kneeling though. Perhaps out of respect. More likely out of concern. “I’d heard you weren't in the best of moods when you received word upon our return that Sylvanas was called away. They told me you wouldn't take your dinner.”
“I wasn't hungry,” Lireesa stated simply as she rose from her chair and shut her book before tossing it onto the now-empty cushion. “I'm still not.”
“Let me bring you something small at least,” Liadrin urged as she stood and followed Lireesa across the parlor towards a decanter of wine on the table Lireesa had only just shared with her daughter that same morning.
“Liadrin, don't be a pest,” Lireesa’s words likely would have stung if they had any emotion at all in them. They didn't. She sounded almost hollow. And then she sighed. “You are a knight. Not a servant.”
Liadrin rested her hand on the sword hanging from her belt and looked down at the marble floor beneath her polished boots. The moonlight outside had turned it a pale yet pleasant grey-blue. It might have looked almost dreary were the melancholy of it all not so beautiful.
“What did you dream?” Liadrin asked, slowly lifting her eyes to rest upon Lireesa once again.
Lireesa held her wine glass delicately in her hand. She looked almost statuesque in the moonlight that flooded in through the windows she was standing near. Looking out over her kingdom, and at nothing, in particular, all at once.
“You should go to the pools for a soak and then have the cooks make you something special. I do appreciate you having accompanied me today. I appreciate you keeping the girl’s mother occupied even more.”
Again, Lireesa spoke flawlessly. There wasn't even any rasp of sleep in her voice. She could have just as easily been addressing her trade council.
Liadrin took a step back and nodded.
“Of course, My Lady. Thank you,” she allowed the more familiar terms they were usually on to fall by the wayside. It simply wasn't worth it. She would gain nothing by pushing this further, and she had no desire to make anything difficult on her Queen. Things were more than difficult enough as it was.
“Goodnight, Liadrin,” Lireesa said just before she took a sip of her wine.
Liadrin thought, then, that the moonlight made her look like another column just like the others in this room the way it washed out her pale skin. Unmoving. Constant. Breathtaking grey-blue melancholy.
Lireesa had never found as much joy in the sun as the rest of their people.
As such, she was glad to drop down heavily from the last step into the steam that hovered above the pools and caught their soft blue light - dispersing it throughout the room.
Such power it had taken to rend the springs from their ageless paths. Such strength of will it had taken to re-route them to the palace for purely recreational purposes. Or perhaps it had been arrogance.
The night’s attendant began unbuckling her armor for her as she stood next to the landing of the stairs. It would be taken away to be polished and stowed in her suite. There would be a soft linen shirt and pants waiting for her when she was done.
Such was the way of things.
One had to put effort into expending any effort, now. Training, at least, was something Liadrin could still do by herself. And she had had a rather taxing session very early that morning to work away some of her nerves before her and Lireesa’s long-awaited visit.
Her sore muscles were that much more reason for her to pad across the steam-dampened floors with a towel over her shoulder to the furthest pool. One meant for privacy, in its own little alcove with silk hangings in its archway.
Liadrin let out a heavy sigh as she took her first step into the scalding water. It was blissful. The next moments found her laying her towel on the edge of the pool and sinking into one of the seats that lined the bottom of it. Molded from the stone itself to provide more comfort than such material should ever have been able to provide. The slopes in the side, too, were set at just the right height to cradle the back of one’s neck if one were so inclined.
Liadrin, tonight, was very inclined to spread her legs out into the water and drape her arms along the edge of the pool. She was even inclined to watch the way the ripples of light danced gently along the low stone ceiling through the steam.
Her minor aches and stiffness dissipated quickly, because these weren't simple pools, of course. Nothing was simple in Quel’Thalas. The heat of the water did a fine job hiding its healing magic. The warmth of spells long ago set into the very stone basins mingled and blurred with the water lapping slowly just above Liadrin’s chest.
She'd only just begun to doze when a sound startled her out of her in-between state of consciousness. The sound of clothing hitting a stone floor.
Liadrin blinked up at the woman who had walked through the silk barrier between her private pool and the rest of the bathing room, and her jaw clenched immediately.
“This is a private pool. The attendant wouldn't have allowed anyone past the curtain.”
“Right as always, Liadrin,” Valeera responded as she lifted her hands to pull her impossibly long ponytail further up into a barely-managed bun. “A shame I had to kill him.”
Liadrin mostly felt as though this was sarcasm. You could never really tell with Valeera, though.
And just like that, Valeera was slipping into the pool directly across from Liadrin. She chose a seat that kept everything but her lower half above the water and spread her arms out along the edge with a sigh.
"What are you doing?" Liadrin asked, sounding just as agitated as Valeera had expected her to.
"Minding my business, but that might not be something you're familiar with,” Valeera’s drawl came out almost bored as she lifted her head from where she'd lain it back to eye Liadrin over the steamy surface of the water.
“Very rich coming from the Royal Spymaster,” Liadrin muttered, as though Valeera wouldn't hear her, at exactly the correct volume for Valeera to hear her.
“Is this a noble-knights-only pool?” Valeera asked with a lift of one of her brows as she gestured vaguely toward the room beyond the curtain. “I saw no signage to suggest-”
“Can you at least stop talking if you insist upon being here?” Liadrin asked before Valeera could finish her sentence.
“I was just fine not talking when I got in the pool. You're the conversationalist, here. And anyway, I need a briefing on the girl.”
“You really couldn't wait until morning for that?” Liadrin asked with a flick of one of her ears. “And you call her ‘girl’ as though you're significantly older.”
Valeera snorted derisively before she responded.
“Yes. Girl. Now, what can you tell me about her?”
Liadrin looked as though she had thoroughly given up at this point, because she had.
“She’s...contained. Measured in every way imaginable. Strange, actually, to think someone could be so polished at twenty years of age,” Liadrin trailed off and regarded Valeera silently for a beat or two. “Please be kind to her, Valeera. She isn't a new source of amusement for you.”
It was Valeera’s turn to be silent, then, as she slipped further into the water. Her expression remained unreadable and impassive despite the sting of Liadrin’s words.
“You think I’m as terrible as all that? That I would risk so much for my own entertainment?” She asked as she lifted her chin almost imperceptibly and trailed her fingertips along the surface of the water.
Valeera ‘tsk’d and shook her head before Liadrin could answer her. “Of course, you do.”
Liadrin felt the faintest tinge of guilt, then. It was easy to express her distaste. Easy to pretend she was better than a former criminal. Mostly because Valeera was such a clear and physical representation of how close they all were to being what they'd been. Being capable of what they'd done.
But Liadrin had never been very good at being honest with herself.
“No,” Liadrin finally said with a faint shrug. “No, I don't think that. I know you’ve settled for terrorizing me.”
Valeera exhaled through her nose and smirked.
“A stunning woman slipping naked into your hot pool. How agonizing,” Valeera mused. “Most of your noble friends would be frothing at the mouth.”
“Haven't you already made your rounds with all of my noble friends?” Liadrin asked without missing a beat.
“Yes. Unfortunately, Kelantir is otherwise occupied this evening,”
Liadrin tried to cut Valeera off, then. Unsuccessfully. The lift of her hand in an attempted protest was utterly disregarded.
“And Cyssa is still at the border. A tragedy. And under your orders, no less. You leave me with no one to keep my bed warm and then you complain when I wind up in your pool. Imagine being so self-sabotaging.”
Liadrin realized she was out of witty retorts the moment she opened her mouth to speak. She shut it again and clenched her jaw and made a move to get out of the pool.
“Sit down,” Valeera’s tone was so different from the one she usually used with her that Liadrin actually listened to her.
Valeera lifted herself from the pool, instead.
“Good girl,” she muttered, gathering Liadrin’s towel from the side of the pool and wrapping it around herself. “Enjoy your sulk. You're really sexy when you sulk by yourself for absolutely no reason.”
Liadrin’s jaw stayed clenched throughout their entire rather one-sided final exchange. She didn't complain that her towel had been stolen. Maybe she deserved it.
And maybe it was her silence that had Valeera pausing as she pushed the sheer curtain aside to leave.
She looked back at Liadrin thoughtfully as she leaned against the side of the arched entrance.
Liadrin looked back at her almost questioningly.
Valeera slipped away before the moment could stretch on long enough to become something more, and Liadrin finally exhaled.
She couldn't remember the last time she'd felt so exhausted. Between the trip and the awful, bland feast. She was tired. She was hungry. And she didn't have time to wonder why she was the one feeling guilty for this particular talk when they'd had a hundred other such talks that hadn't been any different.
But she'd been riding back from the border all night, and her thoughts were too muddled for sleep. Even if they weren't, she was anxious.
She knew she didn't need to knock. The wards around the palace were incomprehensibly strong. Nearly as old as the marble that had shaped the columns that lined the corridors.
It wasn't long before the door was creaking open to reveal Lireesa wrapped in a dark robe not looking the least bit sleepy.
“I'm sorry to disturb you at this hour,” Sylvanas said quietly as she shuffled her weight from one foot to the other in the doorway.
“My darling girl, come in. You are never a disturbance,” Lireesa’s tone was warm and gentle as she took a step back to allow her daughter passage. “What business were you tending to today?”
Sylvanas didn't respond right away. She was busy removing her cloak and her boots by the door because she hadn't even bothered to change when she'd gotten back to the capital.
“Dar’Khan said one of his mage units had gone silent,” she finally explained as she turned to face her mother with a weary expression on her face. “I would have sent someone in my stead had he not asked me directly, and in front of Rommath, no less.”
Lireesa hummed in the back of her throat and looked Sylvanas over quickly as they moved further into her rooms. Within a step or two, Lireesa was satisfied she was unscathed without needing to ask. Lireesa knew Sylvanas well enough that even the faintest injury would’ve been apparent to her.
“A menial task. Is the unit lost?” Lireesa asked in an even tone as she offered Sylvanas a seat on the sofa they’d been heading towards.
“No,” Sylvanas’s response was simple in a way that was simultaneously weighted, and Lireesa looked at her questioningly. “No, their attunement eroded. They couldn’t reach the capital.”
Sylvanas’s gaze met her mother’s and didn’t falter. She was one of the few people who could look Lireesa in the eye. Even Dar’Khan sometimes struggled with such displays.
It was Lireesa who looked away. Farther than just ‘away’, really. It was almost as though she left the room for a moment as her eyes half-focused on the unopened wine bottle on the table in front of them.
“I’ll speak to Dar’Khan,” She finally said after a moment or two. “We can’t afford a loss of communications now.”
“No, we cannot,” Sylvanas agreed, and when she realized her knee was bouncing faintly she stopped it immediately and crossed her legs to prevent any further display of nerves. “And you? How are you faring after the day’s journey?”
None of the worry Sylvanas felt made its way into her tone. She needn’t have bothered hiding it, though. Lireesa could almost taste it on her tongue. Thick and unwanted and bitter.
“You needn’t concern yourself with my well-being,” Lireesa reassured gently, because that much was true. Sylvanas’s concern wouldn’t change anything. It wouldn’t change the ache in her joints or the hollowness gnawing at her insides.
The bottle of mana wine she was now opening would soften the sharpness of it all, though. She poured them each a healthy glass.
“I have a feeling, dear daughter, that the reason for your visit has much less to do with me and much more to do with your betrothed. Am I wrong?” There was a little half-smile playing at Lireesa’s lips, and the tension that had risen to a fever pitch in the room began lessening before it could become too much.
“Perhaps,” Sylvanas reached for the glass her mother offered her and held it in her lap as she looked down into it. It glowed faintly in the dim light that had only just begun filtering in through the windows of her mother’s expansive bed-chamber. A strong vintage. They had only gotten stronger over the years, especially of late. “I had hoped to be here when you returned. It’s been on my mind since you left.”
“It’s been on your mind for years,” Lireesa responded with a soft chuckle. “It only makes sense you would be nearly frantic about it by now. She’s lovely, Sylvanas. Soft in a way that we are not. Smart. Tragically repressed in every facet of her life, yet defiant beneath it all despite everything.”
Lireesa couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen Sylvanas pay such rapt attention to her. When she was younger, perhaps. Not that Sylvanas was old, though she usually showed no hint of her youth. It showed now, though. In the openness of her expression and the faint movements of her ears as though she were imagining the reasoning behind her mother’s words.
It made Lireesa’s heart ache with love.
“She is also beautiful,” Lireesa continued as she reached out to catch Sylvanas’s cheek in her palm to cradle it gently. “The two of you will take the very air out of every room you enter together.”
Sylvanas swallowed thickly as her eyelids fluttered for a moment. She couldn’t help the way she smiled as she dropped her head and turned her face towards her mother’s hand.
Lireesa’s heart ached for a very different reason, then. For all the women who had used Sylvanas to get near to her and to the power of their family. For all the women who hadn’t loved her daughter for her brilliance and her beauty and her kindness.
“I think she will love you, in time,” Lireesa whispered, moving her hand, now, to stroke through the loose waves of her daughter’s hair. “I wish for nothing more than for you to find your equal in this life, Sylvanas. One who deserves you. This may not be ideal. It may not be the way you might have wanted it to happen. But I have hope.”
“So do I,” Sylvanas sighed, and her breath shook slightly on its way out.
Relief, Lireesa realized with a soft smile. Deserved.
Sylvanas deserved that relief as much as she deserved what she desperately hoped Jaina would provide her.
“Hold onto it, then,” Lireesa said with a soft sigh as she moved closer and opened her arm to Sylvanas until she was tucked in against her side. “Even when the day of your marriage comes. And especially on the day after, and the day after that. Love isn’t magic, darling girl. It is, perhaps, the only thing in this world we don’t control. I think that’s what makes it beautiful. I know that’s what makes me want it so terribly for you.”
Sylvanas found comfort in the warmth of her mother in a way she wouldn’t have sought out on her own, though she gladly accepted it, now.
Lireesa watched the windows across the room as shadows of birds flitted across them from the inner courtyard of the palace - enjoying the gardens and the sun of a new day. All the while, she stroked slowly through Sylvanas’s hair - listening idly to her breathing as it began to slow.
“You should rest,” Lireesa murmured, only half-present, now. “You’ve been up for far too long. There is no war. No great threat. You needn’t push yourself so hard.”
Sylvanas’s eyes opened slowly as she listened to her mother’s words and strained to believe them. They were true, after all. They were technically true. And they would tide her over for another day. They would soften the edge of anxiety surrounding her impending union with a young woman she had never met.
Lireesa was helping her up a moment later and pressing the half-empty bottle they’d been sharing into her hand as she guided her to the door. Once there, Sylvanas found herself being helped back into her cloak and her boots much to her sleepy amusement.
“Thank you, Mother,” Sylvanas sighed as Lireesa opened the door for her and gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze.
“Of course,” Lireesa stayed half in the hallway when Sylvanas lingered, and her eyes searched her daughter’s face for a moment as her mind sought out what words might send her to bed. “You know, not many of our kind will ever have the opportunity to show their partner through their own actions what love can be.”
“Because our kind is allowed to love,” Sylvanas responded simply with a furrow between her brows. Perhaps for the first time, she reflected upon her future bride’s situation with something other than disdain. It was a shift so sudden and so apparent that even Lireesa noticed it happening. “I do hope to make her happy. Do you think that I will?”
“I know that you will,” Lireesa responded without hesitation. “All you need do is allow her to know you. I know this because I know you, and my heart would be lost without you.”
Despite the softness of her tone, Lireesa meant those words infinitely more than she meant most things. The conviction in them seemed to be more than adequate appeasement for Sylvanas’s worries. At least for now. But then, she was so tired that she was sagging slightly. Too tired for self-doubt to keep her from retreating to her own wing of the palace. To the comfort of her own bed and her quiet, solitary rooms.
Solitary, at least, for a little while longer.